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FOOTBALL: Staff puts emphasis on special teams

Kate Gales | Tuesday, April 5, 2005

The changes have come quickly for the Irish football squad. But entering the spring, no area is more uncertain than special teams.

Head coach Charlie Weis has emphasized the importance of special teams early, and the rest of the coaching staff has worked to identify players who could possibly contribute to the unit in any number of ways. Bernie Parmalee, Irish special teams coach, and his assistant Brian Polian have worked closely with Weis in developing special teams through the beginning of spring practice.

“Bernie and I do this whole thing together,” Polian said. “The package that we’re running in the kicking game is a collection of everything he has done and liked and everything I have done and like and finally, everything Coach Weis has wanted to do.”

Weis’ involvement with special teams has had a “major impact” in creating a staff-wide emphasis on the kicking game so far, Polian said.

“I think it’s a credit to the head coach with the emphasis on the kicking game to assign two coaches to it,” Polian said. “Our players know that he takes it seriously because he assigned two coaches to it, and the rest of the staff works at it just like we do on punt and kick returns.”

Parmalee and Polian are not setting out to make significant strategic changes on special teams.

“Schematically, we’re going to do what we believe in, and if it’s what they did that’s fine,” Polian said. “We’ll tweak some personnel and find the best guys across the board, and we’ll play them in the kicking game.”

With returning personnel, Polian has seen a number of positives.

“I like our tempo when we’re practicing in the kicking game,” he said. “I think we have a lot of first-team guys on both offense and defense that are willing and working their butts off in the kicking game. I think that’s a real positive. I think there’s going to be good competition for the snapping job, and I think our kickers have done a pretty good job so far.”

D.J. Fitzpatrick, a former walk-on now on scholarship who filled in for an injured Nick Setta at the end of the 2003 season, started as place-kicker and punter in 2004.

“I definitely want to handle both duties [again next season],” Fitzpatrick said. “I’m definitely trying to shoot for all three: kickoff, punt and field goal.

“I love being out there, and as a kicker, you don’t get out there that much, so the more you can do, the better. It keeps me in the game, it keeps me loose and I just love it.”

At this point, a number of players are competing for all kicking duties.

“It’s open right now,” Fitzpatrick said. “We have a new coaching staff and a new season ahead of us, so it’s been a good fight with [sophomore] Geoff Price pushing me for punting and [sophomore] Bobby Renkes and [sophomore] Carl Gioia for kicking, so we’ll see what happens after the end of the spring.”

Fitzpatrick is the leading punter and place-kicker from 2004. He had all 67 of Notre Dame’s kicking points and took 79 of the 81 attempted Irish punts.

Competition for filling the roles of graduating senior kick returners Carlyle Holiday and Carlos Campbell is also wide open.

“We did not come in here with a preconceived idea about who would return,” Polian said. “Coach Weis said to the team, ‘Who wants to try?’ And as we’ve worked in the phase this year in the first three practices, we’ve put a bunch of folks back there, and we’ll do it all throughout the spring. It’s an open dress rehearsal. If you’ve got an interest in doing it, we’re going to put the guy back there and see what he can do.”

Anyone interested in special teams was encouraged to try returning kicks, although offensive players tend to have an advantage in the traditional catching skills.

“There are too many to mention,” Polian said when questioned about who would return kicks. “There’s about 20 names who want to go back there and try it, and they’re not all offensive players.

“There are skill guys on defense … and that’s fine, we’ll take a look.”

Regarding long snapping, the graduation of Casey Dunn leaves the position open.

“We have a few scholarship guys who are capable of long snapping, but I think what happens is a lot of times, you don’t delegate a scholarship just for a guy who does nothing but long snapping,” Weis explained. “I think it’s a great venue or a great opportunity for a walk-on to come on and play, because if you have that skill, you could play … you have a chance of getting on the field.”

Changes will come, but the Irish are looking forward to improving after a difficult 2004 season that saw criticism from many sides.

“We’re pretty optimistic going into the spring,” Fitzpatrick said. “Everybody’s working hard. We had a good off-season lifting and conditioning. We’re really getting after special teams, we’ve got all the coaches working on it and the attitude’s very high. We see nothing but good things for us in the future.”

Polian agrees with the kicker’s assessment.

“Any good coach at any level will tell you the best way to make a football team better in a hurry is in the kicking game, and Coach has preached that since the day that we’ve arrived,” he said. “He’s emphasized it, we’ve got the entire staff coaching in the kicking game with a lot of energy, and I think our players are responding to it and that’s a real positive.”