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Pat Coughlin: ‘Turtle’ emerges as special teams contributor

Matt Gamber | Thursday, November 11, 2010

Patrick Coughlin’s 11 carries for 80 yards in last year’s Blue-Gold Game didn’t catapult him into competition for time in a crowded Irish backfield. But the walk-on’s surprising performance in his first live reps at running back since eighth grade helped lay the foundation for meaningful time on kickoff and kick return as a senior.

“Playing in that game was the beginning of me thinking that I can really play with these guys and contribute to this team. It was definitely the first time I thought that,” said Coughlin, who played receiver under the previous coaching staff. “The transition to running back through the whole spring — being in the trenches, carrying the ball, getting more involved in everything — all helped make me a lot more confident.”

Fast forward to fall camp when, as a member of the scout kickoff team, Coughlin proved too much for the first Irish return unit to handle in practice. During those valuable reps, Coughlin was consistently winning the race down the field, going unblocked and making the tackle — the three keys to successful kick coverage.

“Finally, one day, we’re watching film of the prior day’s kick return practice, and [Irish special teams coach Mike] Elston was just like, ‘Who’s that kid running down on scout team? You need to be running with the two-deeps,'” said Coughlin, who saw an opportunity that might someday lead to playing time. “That five-minute period of kickoff, I had a game-day Saturday mentality running down every play. Eventually, the coaches noticed that and got me in.”

Coughlin, whose friends call him “Turtle,” made his Irish debut when, during the opener against Purdue, an injury to a starter on kickoff gave him an opportunity to run with the first team. The move seemed temporary, however, as Coughlin remained in a backup role until the following Thursday morning leading up to the Michigan game.

“I got a text from [fellow walk-on Nick] Lezynski that said, ‘the new depth charts are up, and you’re starting on kickoff,'” Coughlin said. “I couldn’t really believe it, so I got in my car 15 minutes earlier than I normally do and went to the locker room myself before class to check it out. Once I saw I was up there, the next 48 hours were just a blur — calling people, watching a lot of film and just making sure I was 100 percent prepared to succeed and not let it just be a one-time thing.”

Coughlin was credited with two tackles in Notre Dame’s loss to the Wolverines, and he also made open-field solo tackles against Western Michigan and Navy. But that game against Michigan still stands out, Coughlin said.

“That was the most exciting game for me on the field because we started down early in the first half, came back with two touchdowns, and I got to run down the field while the place was just erupting,” he said. “That was the coolest feeling of my football career.”

A career that nearly ended after a shoulder injury cut short his senior season at Chicago’s Brother Rice High School. Hoping to play a college sport, Coughlin dedicated himself to track, winning the Catholic League’s high hurdles title and qualifying for the state meet. After Coughlin decided to attend Notre Dame, his high school coach convinced him to join the Irish track team. Injuries hindered his freshman track season at Notre Dame, and once sophomore year rolled around, it had become clear to Coughlin that he missed his athletic passion: football.

The turning point came at the 2008 Hawaii Bowl, where Coughlin traveled to watch his older brother Brian, then a walk-on who graduated last May.

“Walking on had always been in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t until that trip that I really realized how much I missed playing football,” said Coughlin, an accounting major who hopes to follow in his brother’s footsteps once again and achieve a Master of Accountancy from Notre Dame next season. “I saw the camaraderie of those guys, and especially of the WOPU [Walk-On Players Union] Nation, and that convinced me to give it a shot.

“I owe a lot to Brian. He was always there, as a guy who had been there before, telling me throughout that I could compete with anyone. I was just like yeah, whatever, but he kept it in the back of my mind that I could really play and not just be a scout team guy. And now I’m playing.”