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2011 Notre Dame Spring Football Preview

March 23, 2011

NOTRE DAME, Ind. - If year one of the Brian Kelly era was about putting a foundation in place for the University of Notre Dame football program, then the second season in Kelly's tenure is about building upon the accomplishments of 2010 and continuing the framework established last year.

"Last spring we were focused on getting our offensive, defensive and special teams systems in place," Kelly said. "We were teaching terminology to the players and instilling expectations for our guys in practices.

"We built a strong foundation last year and now it's time for us to grow."

Two goals Kelly listed prior to the 2010 season were restoring the fight in the Fighting Irish and producing a team that played better in November than in September. Last year's Notre Dame football team battled injuries and tough breaks on the gridiron and came through those situations stronger, resulting in a perfect November and dominating bowl-game performance.

Besides the 28-3 convincing victory over 15th-ranked Utah (Notre Dame's widest margin of victory over an Associated Press top-20 opponent in 14 years), the Irish defeated Army in the first college football game at new Yankee Stadium and closed their regular season by snapping an eight-game losing streak to archrival USC. The season ended with an impressive appearance in the Hyundai Sun Bowl where Notre Dame raced to a 30-3 lead against Miami (Fla.) after three quarters en route to a 33-17 victory. The four-game win streak to close the season marks the longest by a Notre Dame team since 1992. By defeating the Hurricanes, Kelly became the first Fighting Irish football coach to record a bowl victory in his first season on the Notre Dame sidelines.

The Irish defense helped spur the late-season surge as it allowed an average of 9.8 points, 91.8 rushing yards and 276.5 total yards over the last four games. For the season, Notre Dame's defense was drastically better when compared to the 2009 defense in almost every statistical category: scoring defense (63rd in '09 to 23rd in '10), pass efficiency defense (82nd to 25th), rushing defense (89th to 50th) and total defense (86th to 50th).

 

 

Offensively, the Irish were led by quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees who directed Kelly's spread offense attack. Cierre Wood averaged 5.1 rushing yards per carry (second most by an Irish running back with at least 100 carries in the last 14 seasons), and Michael Floyd caught 79 passes for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns.

As Notre Dame returns to practice this spring, its team features 49 monogram winners and 19 combined starters (players that started at least seven games) from offense, defense and special teams. Eight starters on offense return, including four of five offensive linemen and three of the five skill-position players except running back (Wood started five games in '10) and Floyd at one wideout spot. The Irish lose only one player from each level of the defense as eight starters are back from a unit that was much improved in 2010. Notre Dame's special teams are buoyed by the return of placekicker David Ruffer, and the Irish punter and long snapper also return for their third year together.

"We'll focus on skill development and unit consistency in the second year," Kelly said. "We learned what our players are capable of last year -- now we need to have every individual improve while making all three phases of our team much more reliable and consistent."

Notre Dame's 2011 schedule sends the Irish to play three of their first five games away from home. Kelly's crew doesn't leave the state of Indiana in October (road game at Purdue, three home games and bye week) and has a single home game in November. The Irish will play Maryland at FedEx Field outside Washington, D.C., in their off-site home game. After last year's regular-season schedule was ranked toughest in the nation by the NCAA, the 2011 slate features nine teams that appeared in 2010 postseason bowls: South Florida, Michigan, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Air Force, Navy, Maryland, Boston College and Stanford.

Kelly's coaching staff - which has more than 200 years of combined experience - remains intact in 2011. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner had the title of run game coordinator added to his resume and now directs the Irish ground game. Defensively, Kerry Cooks moves from coaching the outside linebackers to cornerbacks and Chuck Martin will focus on the safeties while continuing his responsibilities as recruiting coordinator.

Here is a more detailed position-by-position breakdown of Irish personnel for 2011:

OFFENSIVE PREVIEW

A main storyline from Notre Dame spring practices figures to be the competition for the starting quarterback position, but depth at wide receiver and running back plus shifting of players along the offensive line could also warrant monitoring. The 2011 Irish roster features a healthy balance of returning players on offense by class -- with an almost even distribution of key players with one, two or three years of athletic eligibility remaining.

Year two of Brian Kelly's tenure features 20 returning monogram winners on offense -- with 14 players that have started at least one game for the Irish, 10 players that have started at least five games in their Irish careers and eight players that opened at least seven contests last year.

The only two offensive positions where a starter does not return are running back (where Cierre Wood started five games last year) and left guard. Of a possible 143 starts last season (13 games with 11 starters), 97 total starts return for Notre Dame's offense in 2011. The Irish return 50.1 percent of their rushing yards from 2010, 96.4 percent of their passing yards and 49.2 percent of their receiving yards.

QUARTERBACKS

A season ago, the Fighting Irish entered spring practice with unproven talent at the quarterback position -- as the three signal-callers in spring drills had combined to start zero college football games and only one of the three had ever taken snaps in a game. In 2011, lack of experience will not be an issue. Last year, for the first time since 1983, Notre Dame had two quarterbacks each pass for over 1,000 yards in a season, but unlike the 1984 season, both of those players are on the roster again in 2011 (Blair Kiel and Steve Beurlein eclipsed 1,000 passing yards in '83 but only Beurlein returned in '84 as Kiel had exhausted his eligibility). Senior Dayne Crist (9 games started, 174 of 294 passing for 2,033 yards, 15 TDs, 7 INTs in '10) and sophomore Tommy Rees (4 games started, 100 of 164 passing for 1,106 yards, 12 TDs, 8 INTs in '10) helped guide the Irish to eight wins last year while both were learning a new offensive system and adjusting to the rigors of playing quarterback at the FBS level. This spring they will compete for the starting quarterback job and will be challenged by rising sophomore Andrew Hendrix and early enrollee freshman Everett Golson.

Crist rebounded from knee surgery after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament against Washington State on Halloween 2009. He practiced throughout the spring last year and won the job by the conclusion of spring drills. This year Crist has been forced to rehabilitate his other knee after rupturing his patellar tendon against Tulsa in 2010. Until that point in the season, Crist had averaged 254.1 passing yards per contest including a 369-yard, four-TD performance at Michigan State.

After Crist was injured early against Tulsa, Rees entered as a true freshman and completed 33 of 54 passes for 334 yards and four TDs in that game alone. He started the remaining four games of the 2010 season and helped guide the Irish to four straight wins to close a season for the first time since 1992. The first four starts of Rees' career occurred at Notre Dame Stadium (against #15 Utah), Yankee Stadium (Army), Los Angeles Coliseum (USC) and the Sun Bowl (Miami). Along the way, Rees set Notre Dame single-season freshman passing records for TD passes (12) and completion percentage (61.0) while ranking in the top five in passing efficiency (2nd, 132.70), passing yards (2nd, 1,106) and completions (3rd, 100).

A classmate of Rees, Hendrix did not play in a game in 2010 while serving as the show team quarterback that faced the starting Notre Dame defense each week in practice. The highly-touted gunslinger from Cincinnati was one of the top-rated high school quarterbacks in 2009 and will be given a chance in the spring to win the starting quarterback job for 2011.

New to the Irish this spring is Golson, one of the most prolific passers in high school football history. Golson started four years at Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High School and compiled a 44-5 record as a starter while passing for 11,634 yards and 151 TDs. His career passing TD total ranks sixth all-time by a high school quarterback.

RUNNING BACKS

In many ways, the success of the Fighting Irish in 2010 could be directly related to the success had by Notre Dame's running backs. The Irish were a perfect 7-0 in games they outrushed the opposition, averaging 148.1 yards on the ground in those seven contests, while gaining just 104.0 rushing yards in five losses.

A key member of Notre Dame's rushing attack is junior Cierre Wood (119 carries for 603 yards, 3 TDs in '10; 20 receptions for 170 yards, 2 TDs). After watching from the sidelines as a freshman in `09, Wood saw his first action for the Irish in 2010 and led Notre Dame in carries and yards. His 5.1-yards-per-carry average was the second best by an Irish running back with at least 100 rushes in a season in the last 14 years (Julius Jones had 5.5 yards per carry in '03) and, in the six games Armando Allen did not start or play, Wood averaged 80.2 rushing yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry.

Senior-to-be Jonas Gray will be called on to fill the bruising running back role departed senior Robert Hughes excelled in at the end of 2010. Gray gained 100 yards on 20 carries as a junior last year and enters 2011 with 75 career rushes for 309 yards.

Cameron Roberson did not play as a freshman last fall but was named offensive scout team player of the year for 2010. He is seen as a combination of Wood's speed and Gray's power.

WIDE RECEIVERS

The 2011 Irish receiving corps returns almost 50 percent of the total receiving yards from 2010, but arguably more important is the number of key contributors that are back for Notre Dame this spring. The Irish return two of three starters from last year and four players that have combined to start 22 games for the Irish.

Junior Theo Riddick (40 for 414, 3 TDs) adapted well to wide receiver in 2010 after transitioning from running back after Brian Kelly was hired. Riddick started eight games and started to blossom as a receiver in the middle of the season before an ankle injury robbed him of four games and affected him in the two games he played at the end of the season. During a four-game stretch against Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College and Pittsburgh, Riddick flashed his potential as he led the Irish with 33 combined catches for 343 yards and three TDs.

Rising sophomore TJ Jones (26 for 306, 3 TDs) started seven games for the Irish and showed the flexibility to play either in the slot or on the perimeter of the offense. He became the first Irish freshman wide receiver to record a TD reception in each of his first two career games and caught 10 combined passes for 84 yards with one TD in the two games Riddick missed due to with injury.

Seniors John Goodman (15 for 146) and Deion Walker add age and experience to the group in 2011. Goodman started three games in 2010 and has 21 career receptions for the Irish, while Walker possesses good size and speed and enters spring looking to break into the wide receiver rotation.

Three other players that will be looking to catch the eye of Irish coaches are junior Robby Toma, and sophomores Luke Massa and Daniel Smith. Toma is a quick and shifty slot receiver who grabbed 14 passes for 187 yards in 2010 and started two games. Smith is a tall and rangy wide-out who was mentored by Michael Floyd last year and played primarily on special teams. Smith started the 2010 season on the scout team but elevated his play and was the backup to Floyd by season's end. Massa entered Notre Dame as a quarterback last year, but with the logjam at that position this spring he moves to wide receiver. He spent most of 2010 playing receiver with the scout team after Smith moved up the depth chart and, at 6-foot-4, is one of the tallest receivers on the roster.

TIGHT ENDS

Notre Dame will be replacing the top tight end in college football last season after Kyle Rudolph entered his name for the 2011 NFL Draft. Fortunately the Irish had ample time to develop his backups in 2010. Hampered by a hamstring injury last year, Rudolph only played in the first six games -- and that allowed junior Tyler Eifert to ascend to the top of the tight end depth chart.

Eifert started eight games in his first full season of competition and ranked third on the team with 352 receiving yards on 27 catches with two TDs. Over the final seven games of the season, Eifert ranked second on the Irish with 26 receptions for 335 yards as he displayed good downfield speed and caught almost everything thrown in his vicinity. He enters 2011 possibly on the verge of a breakout season, making him one of the top tight end targets in the nation and potentially next in the line of standout Notre Dame tight ends.

Senior Mike Ragone returns for his fifth year with the Irish -- and he has started nine games in his Notre Dame career. He adds great depth to the tight ends group and has 10 career receptions for 99 yards.

Junior Jake Golic and sophomore Alex Welch round out the tight ends. Golic played in three games last year and enters spring workouts looking to crack the depth chart on offense or special teams. Welch was a highly-recruited player who did not play as a freshman.

OFFENSIVE LINE

In 2010, the Irish began working with a new offensive system while having to replace three starters who combined to start 105 games in their Notre Dame careers. While the task looked daunting on the outside, first-year offensive line coach Ed Warinner helped mold, grow and develop a trio of first-time starters that spearheaded the late-season surge by the Irish.

Led by four players who started all 13 games and another who started 10 contests, Notre Dame's offensive line helped the rushing attack average over 156 yards over the final four games and yielded only five sacks in the last six games of the season. Four starters who combined to start 49 games last year return from that unit.

Senior Trevor Robinson is the most experienced of the bunch, having started each of the last 24 games he has played. His 27 career starts rank second for the Irish in 2011, and he is one of three returning offensive players who started every game last year. He will open spring drills as the starter at right guard.

Taylor Dever returns for his fifth year and started 10 of the 11 games he played last year, all at right tackle. Dever enters spring practice on the heels of one of his best performances last year as he shut down Miami's all-Atlantic Coast Conference defensive end Allen Bailey in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. Bailey entered the contest with 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks on the season but was held to only two assisted tackles and no tackles for loss or sacks.

Senior Braxston Cave won the starting center job last year and never relinquished control of the position, starting all 13 games. Playing with two first-year starting quarterbacks in Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees, Cave was a consistent snapper who helped position the Irish offensive line in the right protections, helping Notre Dame only allow 20 sacks in 502 pass attempts last year.

One of the most pleasant surprises in 2010 was the development of junior left tackle Zack Martin. Martin started every game as a sophomore after sitting out his freshman season and was one of the best first-year offensive tackles in the nation last year. He started 11 games at left tackle and moved to right tackle against Pittsburgh and Western Michigan when Dever was injured so Martin could face the opposition's top defensive end in those two weeks. Martin capped his year by being named the top lineman in the Hyundai Sun Bowl victory over Miami.

The only vacant position on offensive line is Chris Stewart's spot at left guard -- and the competition this spring between fifth-year senior Andrew Nuss and junior Chris Watt will be intriguing to watch. Neither has ever started a game at Notre Dame and, while Nuss provides the position flexibility to play any position on the offensive line except center, Watt appears to be tailor-made for one of the interior offensive line positions with his 6-foot-3, 310-pound frame.

Among other players competing for playing time this spring are senior Lane Clelland, junior Mike Golic Jr., sophomores Christian Lombard and Tate Nichols plus freshman Brad Carrico.

Clelland was a valuable special-teams player for the Irish in 2010. and he adds quality depth to the group. Golic Jr. played as the backup center as well as on special teams last year. He will challenge Cave for the starting center position and has added muscle and weight to his frame to help him with leverage against defensive tackles. Lombard and Nichols excelled as the book-end tackles on last year's scout team and will push Dever and Martin during spring practices. They both continue to work on developing strength, with Nichols, a former high school tight end, qualifying as the biggest player on the offensive roster at 6-foot-8 and 320 pounds. Carrico enrolled early at Notre Dame and could play on either the defensive or offensive line. This spring he'll open on the offensive line and will move between tackle and guard to see which slot suits him best.

DEFENSIVE PREVIEW

The Notre Dame defense that was much-improved in the final stages of the 2010 campaign now features 24 returning monogram winners in 2011 -- including eight players who started at least eight games last year and 11 players who have combined to start 190 games in their Notre Dame careers.

Gone from the 2010 squad are veteran cornerback Darrin Walls (41 tackles, 3 INTs, 4 PBUs), linebackers Kerry Neal (42 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1.5 TFLs) and Brian Smith (50 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 INT, 5 PBUs) and nose guard Ian Williams (38 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks). That quartet combined to start 39 games for the Irish in 2010 and 123 games in their combined careers.

Notre Dame returns 81 percent of tackles made in 2010 (including each of the top seven tacklers from 2010), 83.3 percent of tackles for loss, 85.2 percent of sacks plus 72.2 percent of interceptions and 76.1 percent of passes broken up. Six of the seven Irish defenders that started every game last year return, including two members each of the defensive line, linebackers corps and defensive backs.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Notre Dame returned to a 3-4 defense in 2010, but the Irish also featured packages where they had four down linemen and only two linebackers in the game. For 2011, the Irish return three players who combined to start 30 games on the defensive line last year and record 129 tackles with 11.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks.

Senior Ethan Johnson leads the defensive line and ranks second on the defense with 28 career starts. The defensive end has tallied 66 tackles with 12.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks over the last two seasons and has bulked up to 300 pounds this past offseason. He led the defensive line and ranked second on the team with five sacks in 2010 while adding 34 tackles and six tackles for loss.

Playing opposite Johnson last year was senior Kapron Lewis-Moore who continued to develop into a formidable obstacle for opposing offenses. Lewis-Moore started every game and ranked fourth on the team and first on the defensive line with 62 tackles. Since becoming a starter in 2009, he has totaled 108 tackles with nine and a half tackles for loss and four and a half sacks.

Senior Sean Cwynar started four games at nose guard in 2010 for an injured Ian Williams and maximized his opportunity by registering a career-best 33 tackles, including three tackles for loss. He will be limited this spring due to foot surgery, so he will have to wait to compete for the starting job until training camp in August.

With the void at nose guard this spring due to the graduation of Williams and injury rehabilitation of Cwynar, four players will vie for first-team reps. The first to get the chance in the spring will be senior Hafis Williams who played in all 13 games last year and split time between defensive end and nose guard. Williams moved to nose guard after Ian Williams was injured and fits the cliché of a high-motored player who gave great effort when called upon last year.

Sophomore Louis Nix III was a highly-sought-after recruit who did not play last year as a rookie. Nix proved to be a force on the defensive scout team a year ago and has slimmed down to 340 pounds entering spring drills.

Senior Brandon Newman and junior Tyler Stockton are two other players who will attempt to work into the mix at nose guard. At defensive end, sophomore Kona Schwenke proved a nice surprise for the Irish, as he played in five contests during his freshman season and has added 40 pounds to his frame since his arrival on campus. Schwenke's classmate, Bruce Heggie, did not play in his first year at Notre Dame but also has added about 20 pounds since arriving in South Bend.

Freshman Aaron Lynch was one of the most decorated defensive recruits in Notre Dame's recent class and he enrolled in school in January. He is expected to add instant depth to the defensive line at defensive end.

LINEBACKERS

Three of four Irish linebackers return for 2011, including two players who ranked in the top five in tackles on last year's Notre Dame team. Despite the return of so many starters, competition will be fierce this spring at one of the two outside linebacker positions and at both inside linebacker positions.

All-America candidate Manti Te'o certainly has a position waiting for him at middle linebacker after leading the Irish with 133 tackles last year. However, the rising junior injured a knee in the second half of the Hyundai Sun Bowl and will be kept out of certain contract drills this spring while he rehabilitates the knee. Te'o had a monster season in 2010 to become the leader of the front seven on the defense. He led the team in tackles and ranked second on the squad with nine and a half tackles for loss and added one sack and three pass breakups.

After sitting out his first season at Notre Dame, junior Carlo Calabrese (60 tackles, 5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks) burst onto the scene last fall to win the starting weak-side linebacker job. Calabrese lined up next to Te'o for the first eight games, forming one of the best sophomore linebacker duos in the nation. Calabrese missed two games in the second half of the season while recovering from an injury, but he still ranked fifth on the team in tackles and tied for fifth in tackles for loss.

The weak-side linebacker and backup middle linebacker slots will be two good position battles to monitor this spring. Players shuffling between those positions include seniors Anthony McDonald and David Posluszny, junior Dan Fox and sophomores Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo.

McDonald appeared to have won the starting inside linebacker position opposite Te'o as spring practices concluded a year ago, however a knee injury to McDonald sidelined him for part of preseason drills, allowing Calabrese to win the job. McDonald has appeared in 24 games for the Irish and will cross-train at both middle and weak-side positions. Posluszny has been a solid special-teams contributor over the past two seasons, appearing in 16 games. He will look to make the most of his opportunity this spring.

Fox played in every game last year and totaled 20 tackles. He will play both inside and outside linebacker this spring, but will start the spring at inside linebacker while competing to win a starting spot at the will linebacker position.

Moore preserved a year of eligibility in 2010 and was named defensive scout team player of the year for his performances each week against the first-team Irish offense. An instinctive player, Moore displayed a nose for the ball in practices last year and will play both of the inside linebacker spots this spring. Utupo came to Notre Dame as a standout high school defensive end but has transitioned to an inside linebacker in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's system. The 2009 Los Angeles Times Lineman of the Year, he moves to inside linebacker this spring.

At outside linebacker, senior Darius Fleming (49 tackles, 11 TFLs, 6 sacks) returns for his final season and anchors one of the two positions. Fleming led the Irish in tackles for loss and sacks in 2010 and flourished for the Irish in the second half of the season, totaling seven tackles for loss and four sacks. Poised for a breakout season, Fleming leads the Irish with 25.5 career tackles for loss and ranks second with 11.5 sacks.

Fleming's classmate and fellow Chicagoan Steve Filer hopes to seize control of the other outside linebacker position to form a Windy City wrecking crew on the Irish defense. Filer tallied 14 tackles in 13 games last year and led the Irish in special teams tackles.

Pushing for more playing time in 2011 could be sophomore Prince Shembo (15 tackles) who recorded five tackles for loss and four and a half sacks in his first season. Possessed with great speed off the edge, Shembo was a more-than-capable backup to Fleming, and it will be interesting to watch whether he stays at Fleming's outside linebacker position or could challenge for the starting spot opposite him.

Sophomore Danny Spond was a high school quarterback, but he has great size and speed and adapted well to playing linebacker last year. Spond played in eight games, primarily on special teams, and now weighs 242 pounds after entering Notre Dame around 225 pounds.

New to Notre Dame this year is Ishaq Williams, one of the top linebacker recruits in the nation this year. Williams graduated from high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., in December 2010 and enrolled in Notre Dame in January to participate in spring drills. At 6-foot-5 and 242 pounds, Williams is physically imposing, and the length he adds to Diaco's defense could have an early impact.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The most experienced group of players on Notre Dame's 2011 roster is its secondary, where five players combine to post 81 career games started, including 40 starts in 2010. The only player missing from last year is cornerback Darrin Walls, so the competition this spring will be for his starting position, reserve roles at cornerback, plus the safety position opposite All-America candidate Harrison Smith and depth behind him.

Smith enjoyed his best season at Notre Dame last year as he ranked second on the team with 93 tackles and led the Irish with seven interceptions while his seven pass breakups tied for team-high honors. Smith led the defense with five interceptions in the four-game win streak that closed the 2010 campaign, and he ranked fourth nationally in interceptions. He's started 34 games at Notre Dame and has been hailed as the leader of the defense by both Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco.

Joining Smith at safety last year were both senior Jamoris Slaughter (31 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PBUs) and junior Zeke Motta (50 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1 INT, 2 PBUs). Slaughter opened the year as the starter but was hampered by ankle and heel injuries that allowed him to only start five games. In his stead, Motta started the remaining eight contests and tied for seventh on the team in tackles. Both Slaughter and Motta will compete for the starting safety position this spring.

Players looking to crack the depth chart or break into the safety rotation include seniors Dan McCarthy and Chris Salvi -- plus converted sophomore wide receiver Austin Collinsworth. McCarthy and Salvi both saw action primarily on special teams last year. McCarthy was slowed by injuries that allowed him to only play in seven games. Salvi, a walk-on, appeared in nine games in 2010. Collinsworth left the deep and talented wide receiver group and joined the safeties after using his speed and athleticism to total seven special teams tackles last year.

Fifth-year senior Gary Gray and senior Robert Blanton have started 33 games between them and both have 10 career pass breakups and a combined 10 interceptions. The duo enters spring as the presumptive starters at cornerback with only two scholarship cornerbacks behind them.

Gray experienced his best season at Notre Dame in 2010 as he ranked third on the team with 66 tackles, including five tackles for loss, and added one interception and seven pass breakups. He started every game last year and helped the Irish limit its opponents to 10.2 yards per pass completion, the best by a Notre Dame defense since 1993.

Blanton has started 13 games in his Irish career and was used as Notre Dame's nickel back in 2010. He proved to be a force around the line of scrimmage, tallying the third-most tackles for loss on the team (seven) and the most by an Irish defensive back since A'Jani Sanders had 10 in 1999.

Sophomore Lo Wood played in 11 games in his freshman season, mostly on special teams, and enters spring as the only other cornerback on the roster with any experience at that spot at the collegiate level. Wood's classmate, Bennett Jackson, makes the move to cornerback from wide receiver this spring. Notre Dame's 2010 special teams player of the year, Jackson totaled 10 tackles on kickoff and punt coverage units last year.

SPECIAL TEAMS PREVIEW

Notre Dame enters spring drills looking to maintain the success its coverage units and field-goal kicking team experienced in 2010 while improving the punt return and kickoff return averages.

The Irish ranked 17th nationally in kickoff return defense, as opponents averaged 19.4 yards per kickoff return and only two of 59 returns gained at least 35 yards. Notre Dame's punt coverage team was equally as impressive as it ranked 20th in the FBS after allowing 5.5 yards per return. In fact, you remove the 59-yard TD return vs. Tulsa, then the Irish allowed only 18 yards on 13 punt returns the rest of the season.

The field-goal kicking was nothing short of exemplary in 2010 -- and almost all the pieces return in 2011. Notre Dame was 19 of 20 in field goals and 37 of 40 in extra points last year.

The Fighting Irish return game averaged 5.4 yards per punt return and 21.2 yards per kickoff return. with John Goodman (13 punt returns for 17 yards) and Bennett Jackson (29 kickoff returns with 22.2 yard average) serving as primary returners in 2010.

KICKERS

Over the last two years, Notre Dame placekickers have combined to convert 38 of 42 field-goal attempts and both kickers responsible for those figures return in 2011. Fifth-year senior David Ruffer was a Lou Groza Award finalist (college football's top placekicker) in 2010 after he converted 18 of 19 field goals and 37 of 40 extra points. The former walk-on will be on scholarship for the first time in 2011 after he set the school record by making the first 18 field goals he attempted in 2010 and the first 23 of his career.

Junior Nick Tausch made the only field goal he attempted last year and is now 15 of 18 for his career on field goals. He previously held the school record for most consecutive made field goals in a season (14) before Ruffer broke it in 2010.

Ready to challenge both Ruffer and Tausch is freshman Kyle Brindza, Michigan's top high school kicker last year and one of the best in the nation in 2010. Brindza set the Michigan record with 19 made field goals as a senior and was six of nine from beyond 50 yards.

PUNTERS

Junior Ben Turk had only 14 of his 68 punts returned last year and he landed 26 punts inside the 20 while just three punts resulted in touchbacks. Turk averaged 38.3 yards per punt and 22 punts were fair caught.

Turk will be pushed by Brindza this spring as the freshman also handled the punting duties at his high school. Brindza's junior year saw him average 48.2 yards per punt en route to receiving first-team all-state accolades and he averaged 43.2 yards per punt in 2010.

LONG SNAPPERS

Junior Jordan Cowart enters his third year at Notre Dame as the snapper for punts, while the job as snapper for field goals and extra points will be contested this spring. Cowart has snapped for 94 punts in his first two seasons and Notre Dame has not had a blocked punt with him snapping. The short snap was handled primarily by Bill Flavin in 2010 until he broke his ankle, prompting Braxston Cave to take over. Cave will again compete for the position this spring but could face competition for the job.

--ND--

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