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Patrick Coughlin applies lessons from brother to earn role on team

Brian Hartnett | Thursday, November 17, 2011

For most Division I football players, simply learning the roles and nuances of a single position is a job in itself. For senior running back Patrick Coughlin, life as a Notre Dame walk-on football player has required an understanding of several different positions, as Coughlin has taken on the roles of receiver, running back and both kickoff and kick return specialist during his time at Notre Dame.

However, Coughlin’s story of adapting to several different roles is not simply limited to the football field. Coughlin began his freshman year at Notre Dame as a member of the track team, a position that he had expected to hold throughout his college years.

As three-sport athlete at Brother Rice High School in Chiacgo, Coughlin played football, basketball and track, but missed much of his final high school football season due to a separated shoulder.

“After I got hurt, I decided to concentrate on track, and I thought that that would be my only way to play a sport in college,” Coughlin said. “The coach at Notre Dame asked me if I was interested in running track here, and I joined the team as a preferred walk-on.”

Coughlin spent his freshman year and the first semester of his sophomore year competing for the team, but soon came to the realization that he truly missed playing football. His longing for the game was not just reignited by watching Notre Dame play on fall Saturdays; it was largely fueled by watching the efforts of his older brother Brian, then a walk-on receiver for the team.

“I never thought that I would play football again until my brother walked on,” Coughlin said. “Since he is only one year older, we have always hung out with a lot of the same people and, when he got on the team, I started hanging out with the other walk-ons … They told me that I could definitely make the team if I tried out, which encouraged me a lot.”

With that support system behind him, Coughlin tried out for the team in 2009 and made the squad. He was quickly thrust into the role of scout team receiver, going against Notre Dame’s top defenders to prepare them for opposing offenses.

“It’s really a different experience as a walk-on player,” Coughlin said. “You really have to prove yourself to the coaches and other players before you can start earning respect from them.”

Coughlin made another switch at the start of spring practices in 2010, when new coach Brian Kelly asked Coughlin if he would like to make the switch to running back, a position that he had not played since grade school.

“When Coach Kelly came here, there were only four scholarship running backs, and his offense is so fast-paced that it requires two running backs,” Coughlin said. “I don’t really know what did it for him, but I think they needed a walk-on on the scout team for individual running back drills.

“I was intimidated at first but, looking back, I think it’s one of the best moves I’ve made in my football career.”

Despite the lack of experience at his new position, Coughlin made his mark early, rushing for 80 yards in that year’s Blue-Gold game. However, with the talent in the Irish backfield, Coughlin’s chances at seeing game action meant he would have to make one more switch, this time to the kickoff and kick return special teams units.

Coughlin’s strong work ethic in practice helped him earn a spot on the first team kickoff and return units the first week of the 2010 season. He amassed seven tackles in 10 games last season and has so far made one tackle in three games this year.

“This year, I’ve pretty much been the 12th man on kickoffs,” Coughlin said. “If anyone goes down, I can pretty much play any position needed.”

Coughlin put his versatility on display in one of his favorite football memories, this year’s contest against Michigan State.

“I had no idea that I was playing against Michigan State until Friday night, and I was playing a position that I had never played before,” Coughlin said. “On one of the final kickoffs, I just said that I was going to run down the field and run over one of the guys on the double team.

“Fortunately, the guy on the double team hit me in such a way that I was able to get right up and help [David Posluszny] with the assisted tackle.”

A graduate student currently pursuing his master’s degree in accountancy, Coughlin plans to start work at accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers in Chicago after graduating from Notre Dame.

“I hope to have a good career there and then, after that, I don’t really know where I’ll end up,” Coughlin said.

With his trademark versatility, however, Coughlin should have no problem finding his way to success.