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FOOTBALL: Making his point

Heather VanHoegarden | Tuesday, April 12, 2005

After a 2004 season that saw the Irish continually struggle on special teams, new head coach Charlie Weis is ready to turn that around, and it started Saturday afternoon.

“He keeps telling us the fastest way to rebuild a team is special teams, and we’re trying to rebuild this team as fast as we can,” safety Tom Zbikowski said. “Spending a whole hour on special teams is going to hit home.”

Weis said the only way to get better was to go full-speed, which is what the Irish did Saturday, practicing punt coverage and returns, punt protection and field goal kicking at Notre Dame Stadium.

“I don’t think you could have done many more reps full speed than we did today,” Weis said. “That’s the one thing about special teams, other than take it to the ground, if you don’t practice special teams full-speed, you don’t get any good at them.”

Weis gave numerous players opportunities at different positions for the first hour of practice. One of these was wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, who was the holder on some of the field goal attempts, the majority taken by returning starter D.J. Fitzpatrick and walk-on Bobby Renkes.

“I held in high school so I’m trying to get back to it because I didn’t do it last year,” the sophomore said. “I kinda stepped in there. I kinda feel like it fits me. Catching well is what I do every day, so why not do it on special teams, too?”

One player that stood out on returns was junior walk-on Brandon Harris.

“He’s very fast,” Weis said. “And when you have a guy that’s a little bit of an unknown, one thing that stands out about Brandon is that he’s very fast. Everything he’s doing, he’s very fast.”

Harris rotated on punt returns with Rhema McKnight, Zbikowski and Maurice Stovall, who Weis said is a reliable returner.

“The one thing is that he’s a dependable catcher of the ball,” Weis said of Stovall. “I think the one thing you’ve always got to start with is someone who can catch the ball.”

Zbikowski, a former high school quarterback, was just excited to get the ball in his hands.

“I’m just trying to get the ball as much as I can,” he said.

But Weis said it wasn’t necessarily the returners he was most concerned with.

“I wasn’t worried about those guys back there,” he said. “I was worried about the protection and the coverage right now. I’ll worry about those returners coached between [coach Mike] Haywood and myself. I was more concerned with, ‘can we protect and can we cover?'”

Defensive back Terrail Lambert, who saw action as a gunner, along with fellow defensive backs Leo Ferrine and Tregg Duerson, said the team’s speed will help on special teams, something he sees as an important part of the game.

“I think it works to our advantage just ’cause we have players like Leo that are athletic so it’s gonna help us on special teams, an important phase of a game people seem to overlook a lot,” Lambert said. “So it helps you out on that third of the game that you need.”


J.J. Jansen handled long-snapping duties Saturday, replacing last year’s snapper Casey Dunn, who did not return for a fifth-year of eligibility.uWeis said that he worked with returners mostly on decision-making, something he deemed one of the most important aspects in that position.

“When I went back to deal with the returners, I tried to give them the simple fundamentals of decision-making as a returner,” Weis said. “I think one of the easiest ways to get beat on special teams is by poor decision making by the returners.”