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FOOTBALL: Irish focus on the details

Matt Puglisi | Thursday, September 1, 2005

With all the focus on new Irish coach Charlie Weis, an offense loaded with returning starters and a defense – particularly the secondary – riddled with inexperience, special teams have been lost in the fray as the Irish get ready to kick off the season Saturday night in Pittsburgh.

“I told everyone from the time I’ve gotten here how important I’ve felt the role of special teams were at this place,” Weis said at the end of training camp.

Leading the Irish special teams unit against the Panthers will be running back Travis Thomas.

“The runaway choice by the coaching staff for the special teams captain was Travis Thomas, and he’ll become a tri-captain for the first game against Pittsburgh,” Weis said. “He’s playing on all of our coverage teams, he’s done a great job, showed a lot of toughness, and I think that he exemplifies what I’ve been looking for in special teams players.”

With all the changes surrounding Notre Dame football, Weis will be sticking with many of last season’s key contributors.

A year after D.J. Fitzpatrick hit 11-15 field goals and posted a 41.8-yard punt average, he will once again handle the kicking and punting duties.

Weis made it abundantly clear that Fitzpatrick is the man for the kicking jobs.

“[The competition] wasn’t close,” Weis said.

Like Fitzpatrick, junior wide receiver Chase Anastatsio will keep his 2004 role, serving as the primary kick returner.

Weis pointed to a trio of factors that facilitated Anastasio in claiming the position.

“There are three key ingredients of Chase – he’s smart, tough and fast,” Weis said. “You can’t coach speed. Either you have it or you don’t. When you’re smart and you have some experience, it gives you a chance to be out there. His experience gives him a fighting chance to edge some of those others out.”

In addition, special teams coach Brian Polian felt the sense of security Anastasio gives the Irish coaches contributed to his selection.

“Chase is not afraid – he’ll hit it up in there,” Polian said. “He’s got ball skills, and we trust him as a person. We trust his judgment. Chase was a guy that hung around all camp, and at the end, he’s still there because he does things right.”

While Anastasio will once again take care of kickoff returns, a new face-freshman David Grimes-will be returning punts this season.

“I think he’s got good speed – he’s an agile guy,” Polian said. “Obviously, he’s a receiver, so he’s got ball skills. All of those attributes will help him be a punt returner.”

While the selection of a freshman to return punts on national television in his first college game raised several eyebrows, Polian doesn’t believe Grimes’ inexperience will be a factor.

“It wouldn’t matter if it was David or anyone else back there, when it’s the first game, you’re always nervous – whether it be a fifth-year senior or a freshman,” Polian said. “No matter how much pressure we put on these guys in practice, you can’t recreate the pressure you feel on a game day. We try to create as many high-pressure situations as we can, but ultimately, when the lights go on, it’s a little bit different. It’s part of the deal.”