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Irish special teams play improves after rough start

Chris Masoud | Thursday, November 3, 2011

The last time Notre Dame took to the road, a 38-10 victory at Purdue, the Irish lost three yards on two punt returns, the front line allowed a field goal to be blocked and senior kicker David Ruffer shanked a field goal attempt.

Two wins, a loss and a bye week later, the special teams unit has shored up its former flaws and looks to provide much-needed consistency across the board.

“I think that the improvement has come from better execution from the specialists and better execution from the guys blocking — guys playing harder, more consistent,” special teams coordinator Mike Elston said. “Our specialists are playing a lot better, from snapper to punter to kicker to returner. I think they’ve settled down a little bit and built some confidence, and it has allowed the cover teams to do their jobs.”

Ruffer has settled into a groove after converting his last three attempts, as he looks to return to his 2010 from when he tallied 23 straight field goals. Junior punter Ben Turk has slowly improved his average to 38.2 yards per attempt, and Elston attributes his recent success to improved snapping.

“David has proven that he can do it, but Ben has yet to prove that he can consistently do it in the game. It’s just about building confidence and getting out there,” Elston said.

Although freshman kicker Kyle Brindza has shown flashes of brilliance, Elston said he still needs to develop the reliability to deliver a kickoff to the opponent’s goal line.

“[Brindza] just needs to relax and stop trying to over kick the ball. I don’t care if it’s a touchback. It doesn’t need to go in the end zone, but it needs to get down to the goal line at the angle at which we say to put it.”

But perhaps the most striking difference on special teams has been the emergence of freshman running back George Atkinson on the kickoff return team. After returning touchdowns against Michigan State and USC, the freshman ranks third for the Irish with 672 all-purpose yards and has emerged as a threat on every kick.

Outside of kicking specialists, recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin said special teams roles are filled by skill players rather than traditional recruiting methods.

“You really don’t spend a ton of time saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to take this kid because he’d be great at special teams.’ You hope you recruit enough skill guys and defensive guys that they’ll just do it,” recruiting coordinator Chuck Martin said. “As much as coach Elston would love to say, ‘Hey, let’s take three or four gunners,’ usually you just get your [defensive backs] and your wide outs, and they do a good enough job.”

Elston, who also serves as the lead recruiter of North Carolina, said the Tar Heel state has been a great source of talent for Notre Dame in the past, including senior cornerback Robert Blanton.

“We’ve had success in the Charlotte area and the Raleigh area,” he said. “The location is nice because with those big cities, there’re flights into South Bend. There’s a draw because Notre Dame is visible.”

A transfer from Butler, senior safety Chris Salvi is not a product of recruiting methods of any kind, but the walk-on has filled a number of key roles for the Irish on special teams. After shuffling in and out of the lineup earlier in the season, Salvi has emerged as a mainstay on special teams and was named a gameday captain prior to Notre Dame’s victory over Navy last Saturday.

“It meant a lot to me because this program is important to me,” Salvi said. “One of the best parts of when they announced it [was] the support from all the other players. Being able to see how much we care about one another and how much we support one another — it’s awesome.”

Martin attributes Salvi’s success to his toughness and willingness to “run through a wall” if asked.

“He gets the most out of what God gave him,” Martin said. “He’s not the most-gifted kid as far as physical tools, but he’s probably as mentally tough and physically tough as any kid we have in our program. He just kind of bided his time, and coach Elston had a lot of confidence in him.”

Although the Irish have yet to prove they can carry their recent consistency on special teams on the road, Elston said the message and execution in practice has been the same.

“There’s no difference for us when we go on the road,” he said. “We just have to continue to grow and continue to improve. We can’t take a step back this week.”