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Return game improves while kicking steadies

Joseph Monardo | Wednesday, September 11, 2013

It was an insignificant moment in the first quarter of Notre Dame’s 41-30 loss to No. 11 Michigan on Saturday. TJ Jones fielded a punt and took it 18 yards the other way for a modest return. In the press box, the announcer mistakenly attributed the return to freshman running back Greg Bryant.

Justly, Jones got credit for the return in the official statistics, and the play went down as the longest punt return for No. 21 Notre Dame (1-1) since former Irish receiver Michael Floyd broke out for 41 yards in the Champs Sports Bowl at the end of 2011. Despite the lack of ceremony surrounding the play and the temporary misidentification, the moment was representative of what turned out to be a standout day for Notre Dame special teams. 

“I’m feeling real good about punt return,” Jones said. “Each week’s a learning week for myself and I think that as a unit as a whole, a lot of the guys are a little more excited about punt return this year and it’s ultimately affecting us in a good way.”

In 2012 Notre Dame totaled 46 yards on 21 punt return attempts, as the coaching staff opted for safe formations at a high rate. Coming into 2013, Irish coach Brian Kelly signaled a shift in mentality for his punt return unit.

“The numbers were pretty clear,” he said at Notre Dame’s media day on Aug. 23. “We had 43-percent safe punts last year.

“We’re going to try to set up some punt returns regardless of some of those field positions where we were in safe punt keeping our defense on the field. We’re going to try to set up with some returns. So we’ll be a little bit more aggressive with it.”

Having Jones as the punt returner also played a part in Notre Dame’s enhanced focus on the aspect of the game, Kelly said.

“One of the cores for wanting to be successful is a burning desire to want to do the job,” he said. “I didn’t have a guy that had a burning desire to want to do that job. [Jones] wants to do this job badly.”

Jones was not the only Irish player who impressed on special teams in Michigan Stadium, as junior running back George Atkinson netted 76 yards on two kickoff returns, including a 50-yard scamper in the third quarter. Junior kicker Kyle Brindza converted all three of his field-goal attempts – from 44, 24 and 40 yards – to bring stability to an Irish kicking game that began the season on a sour note. Against Temple in the season opener, both Brindza and graduate student kicker Nick Tausch missed field-goal attempts.

Having converted 23-of-31 attempts in 2012, Brindza brings considerable experience to the kicking position, although he has only recently taken up the punting duties, as well. 

“I anticipated the whole time,” he said of fulfilling both roles. “I came in here a combo guy, expected to be a combo guy here soon, and it’s finally come to my attention, to the coaches’ attention as well, that I’m able to step up and perform at both levels – both punting and kicking.”

Against the Wolverines (2-0), Brindza covered 80 yards on two punts. In the Gold vs. Blue game in the spring, Brindza averaged only 30.1 yards per punt on seven attempts.

“I’ve gotten a lot more confident ever since the spring,” he said. “You know, it was my first time rolling with the [first team]. Now that I’m used to it, I’ve been in the environment of all these different stadiums for about a year now. I’m kind of just calm and cool now, like I was last year with the field goals.”

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu