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Vacant spot looms large for returning kick specialists

Eric Retter | Friday, April 21, 2006

Coming into spring practice, Notre Dame faced the unenviable task of replacing graduating senior D.J. Fitzpatrick – who had been the team’s primary placekicker and punter in each of the past two seasons – with players who lacked significant game experience.

“In terms of our kicking game this spring, I think it’s pivotal that we get two or three specialists to step up and really take the bull by the horns and take one of those jobs,” Irish special teams coach Bill Polian said at the team’s spring media day March 21. “Having to replace D.J., you know, yeah, that’s not an ideal situation to have one guy doing both and now he’s gone, but we feel confident that there are guys in this program that will step up and win one of those jobs.”

As spring practice draws to an end a month later, Notre Dame is at least a step closer to filling those positions for the 2006 season.

Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said junior Geoff Price had a strong spring at punter and the coaching staff has taken notice.

“Out of all the things on the special teams … the thing I’ve been pleased the most about has been Price’s punting,” Weis said.

Weis calculated Price’s average distance at 43 yards per punt, and was specifically pleased with both the distance and hangtime of his punts.

“The biggest problem [is that] there’s been a couple times he’s outkicked the coverage,” Weis said.

Weis, however, isn’t likely to officially name a starter at punter or kicker until after the team returns to begin the season in the fall with the incoming freshman class – including kicker Ryan Burkhart.

“I don’t know if we’ve got anything set in stone in terms of the depth chart, because we still have an entire August camp,” Polian said.

What’s more, the weather has kept the team indoors for nine of its first 13 practices.

“Being outside [only] four times and not being able to really cut loose and hit the ball as hard as we want to hit it has been just a little bit of an annoyance, but I think our kids have done a pretty good job of overcoming that,” Polian said.

Although the Irish have been inside more than anticipated this spring, the kickers and punters have been able to get substantial work in.

“We’ve had to try and get creative, and that’s fine, that’s part of it,” Polian said. “What we end up spending a lot of time on is a lot of technique a lot of, ‘Okay, were going to work on this one skill, this one phase of a skill and let’s focus on that. For instance, we’ve spent a lot of time with [Price] on the footwork in his punting … whether we’re inside or outside, he can work on the consistency of his footwork or his drop.”

At kicker, junior Carl Gioia has begun to distance himself from the pack, which included fifth-year senior Craig Cardillo and rising senior Bobby Renkes. However, he will also have competition from Burkhart in the fall.

“Right now, Carl is clearly the No. 1 guy, but we got this young leg [in Burkhart] coming round here pretty soon, and he’s going to get a chance to beat him out,” Weis said.

While Burkhart is highly regarded among the coaching staff, Polian stressed the difficulty of a player making an impact in his first year out of high school.

“I think it’s difficult for any true freshman to start at any position just because the level of competition jumps up, especially at a place like this where you’re constantly playing the best in the country,” he said. “That being said, it happens, whether or not it’ll happen here we have no idea. Time will tell – August will tell.”

Although he is pleased about separating himself from the pack during spring practice, Gioia emphasized that the starting job won’t be won or lost until Notre Dame gets closer to the start of the regular season in the fall.

“The real stuff won’t come until after summer and into fall,” Gioia said. “In terms of preparation it’s just going to be just trying to compete against myself up until then, trying to get better in the areas where I think I need to get better.”

While Weis has been encouraged by what he has seen in the past month, he also underscored that this spring is only an indication of the possibilities for the fall.

“The jury’s still out on this one, because right now it’s not live rush, there’s not 80,000 people there, we’re not playing in Atlanta under the lights on September 2 [in Notre Dame’s season opener against Georgia Tech],” he said. “But I’d say, of everything, [the concern about the specialists], which was one of my biggest concerns, right now, at this point, is not as much of a concern as it was at the start of the spring.”