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Players, coaches strive to improve special teams play

Andrew Owens | Thursday, October 6, 2011

A special teams unit can be a forgotten yet crucial aspect of any team. It can provide a game-changing momentum swing when an opponent least expects it. As Notre Dame is finding out in 2011, it can also be crippling.

Through the first five games of this season, the Irish have sputtered in virtually every aspect of special teams play.

“[Special teams are] an emphasis,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We’re working hard at it. We know it’s an area that has to get better, has to improve. But like anything else, we’re up late. We’re looking at everything. We’re examining everything that’s being done, every person out there, every player, every scheme.

“There’s no hurt feelings here when it comes to special teams. This is raw in a sense that everything has to be examined because we’ve got to get better there.”

Junior receiver Theo Riddick began the season as the starting punt returner but, after two muffed punt returns against South Florida, one of which gave the Bulls three critical points in their 23-20 victory, was replaced by senior receiver John Goodman.

Goodman, chosen for returns due to his sure hands, has displayed anything but ball security during his 2011 stint at the position. His most critical gaffe was a dropped ball inside Notre Dame’s own 20-yard line when the Irish held a precarious 15-point lead over Michigan State in the fourth quarter Sept. 17.

“We’ve got to make better decisions catching the ball,” Irish special teams coach Mike Elston said. “We’ve got to do a better job of holding on. We got to get guys out so they can run a little bit better and hold up.”

In Notre Dame’s 38-10 win at Purdue Saturday, Goodman made the decision to let a punt drop and watched as it rolled an extra 15 yards, putting the Irish offense against its own end zone.

“Purdue had good skill and we didn’t really match up well, but we match up better this week with guys we can get out there, so we just got to put better guys on their fast players and try and do a better job of holding up,” Elston said.

In a sign that Notre Dame is pulling all tricks out of the bag to improve special teams play, junior punt returner Ben Turk has even punted rugby-style at some points during a slow start to 2011.

The blame for the perplexing start to 2011, however, can be passed evenly between coaches and players, Kelly said.

“We got to coach better, and everyone wants to put it on Mike Elston, but there are six other coaches that are responsible for those teams,” he said. “There are lieutenants on each one of those units and each one of them has to be accountable to do a better job. Having said that, I think we all know on the other end [which] players have to play better.”

Perhaps most befuddling has been the play of senior kicker David Ruffer. After the former walk-on converted his first 18 attempts before missing his final boot of the 2010 season, he has started 2011 on a 3-of-7 mark. At Purdue, Ruffer missed a 49-yard field goal and had another blocked in the victory.

“On the block, that was on [Ruffer]. He kicked the ball too low,” Elston said. “The guy put his hand up and blocked it and that can’t happen. He got a little penetration, but not enough to block the kick. On the miss, he struck the ball well, but it just went one foot outside the upright. It was a 49-yard field goal, so we expect him to make it. That’s why we put him out there and he missed it by a foot.

“You’ve got to try to build his confidence back up …”

The rose among thorns for the Irish has been freshman running back George Atkinson, who took on the role of kick returner in week three. He made a splash as the first Notre Dame freshman kick returner to score since Raghib Ismail in 1988.

Overall, Kelly said he continues to evaluate the entire unit and search for a cure to Notre Dame’s woes.

“What I really try to do is examine all phases of the game and find out whether it’s personnel, whether it’s teaching, or simply is it scheme,” he said. “I try to break it down in that area. [While] I believe we spend the appropriate time on special teams, we would be a whole lot better if we got better play. That doesn’t exonerate the coaches. We’re part of that as well. But we need better play.”