May 8, 2000
by Paul A. Camarata
Offense may sell tickets, and defense may win championships, but between them is the link that does both and often without recognition.
Special teams can be the forgotten third party that is equally as influential as it is unappreciated. It represents the confluence of aggression and protection, where careful scheming must marry reckless abandon like no other place on the field. The right personnel and their combinations can set up a team for the ultimate success, but if they are not orchestrated just so, then harmony will never be achieved. And in the balance, games may be won or lost.
The special teams represent a diverse enough fraction of practice time and game preparation, that its design and function depends on many contributions. Trying to track down the men who are in charge of a specific area can be as difficult as the pursuit of a fleet-footed punt returner. Notre Dame coaches Steve Addazio and Jerry Rosburg may be listed in game programs or media guides as the special teams coaches, but ultimately they are just part of the entire network.
"It's all split up," says Addazio. "The thing I know best is the punt protection. Coach Rosburg does the punt returns, Coach (Urban) Meyer has the kickoff returns, Coach (Dave) Borbely has the field-goal and extra-point units, so we all have a phase."
As each of these coaches is also responsible for a different offensive or defensive position, most special teams discussions include the names of players from the top of the Irish roster to the bottom. Familiarity with players' respective strengths and weaknesses at their positions helps the coaching staff evaluate who will be most effective on special teams. The period of spring drills provides an opportune time to sift through the team's talent in order to distribute it and create effective units.
"In spring ball, you're taking a phase every day and working with it. For example, one day we work the punt protection," Addazio adds. "You're trying to get fundamentally sound and get your personnel in order, see what people belong where. Then you can start to get the fundamentals of your scheme in place so the players understand what you want to get accomplished, and you can get some quality work and good looks against a good opponent."
Though more diverse, the work ethic behind specials teams preparation is not unlike that of other places.
"It's all so you can develop, like every other phase of offense and defense," Addazio adds.
The same trial-and-error system has guided the work and selection of Rosburg's kickoff teams.
"As with most of the special teams," he says, "we set up a two deep and then we work with everybody and find the best guys. We have a bunch of guys working kickoff right now but we haven't really set a team."
Still, the signature units are not wholly without continuity, as they do depend on the prior performance of players who have especially developed the credentials to contribute.
Says Rosburg, "We have a pretty good idea about some of the guys that were on kickoff last year who did a good job, and we will keep them."
The kickoff unit is perhaps the most explosive assignment on the field. It's the group that is enlisted and depended upon to fly at a breakneck speed in pursuit of what is usually the opponents' most dangerous and versatile athletes.
"The thing about kickoff team is it's not a complicated operation. There's very little scheme involved, the more just having guys with courage, having a bunch of guys that take pride in it and are willing to run down there to get a ball that's kicked decently," said Rosburg.
"Overall, our kickoff could be better. I think the concepts have been taught and ingrained in some of the guys. I think we have some guys there, some of the same players are back, and it's just a matter of putting them in the right spots. If we can get the ball kicked where we want to I think we have a chance to do well."
Occupational hazards are the name of the kickoff game, a factor that must be kept in consideration so early in the football calendar year.
"It's something you can practice, but you don't want to practice it a lot in the springtime. You've got to make sure all the concepts are understood, but it's something that needs to be demonstrated full speed. It's a physical, physical, open space and high speed collision kind of a drill, and you really don't want to put your own players at risk in the spring with that kind of thing."
Equally demanding on a team's speed and athleticism is the kickoff return team, one that averaged 23.1 yards per runback in 1999, a number that Meyer would like to help increase even more this fall.
"I think the guy returning is the number-one place you start," said Meyer. "I think we'll have our best guy back there in Julius Jones that we've had since Allen Rossum did it three years ago. You get Julius, Terrance Howard, David Givens, Javin Hunter and Tony Driver and you've got guys who can run. They're all guys that can legitimately take it the whole distance."
Though the player fielding the ball may garner the attention of every eye in the stadium, Meyer says there is a consistency in front of the ballcarrier that is equally important and must be established. Last year, players such as Driver, Lee Lafayette and Brock Williams and junior Donald Dykes, who are among the team's most athletically gifted, were forced to miss time. Meyer notes that while these players were not catching the ball on kickoffs, their absence was felt nonetheless.
"Some of those guys were not the returners but they were guys on the team. When you start losing guys, there's no question that it hurts your consistency. You have to hopefully develop your starters and then backups in case you do lose guys."
The special teams coaches are also optimistic about the kicking game, in which a deep group of young and talented players are working at placekicker and punter.
"We're rotating the kickers right now, still working with them all. David Miller is starting out, Nick Setta is coming back from an injury and we are also looking at former soccer player Matt McNew. With them and with any walk-ons, Coach (Kirk) Doll judges them," says Rosburg.
"They get tested every day in their individual drills, so we haven't really had the chance to test them in our kickoff drills yet." Doll is listed as Bob Davie's assistant head coach, but his duties in addition to this and punting, also include working alongside Addazio and the punt unit.
"Right now we're focusing on the protection, the rules and the assignments of it," said Addazio.
"I'm working with the whole thing and Coach Doll works directly with the punters in their fundamentals."
The punt rush and its brother, the punt return team, are both areas in which the Irish will look for continued growth on last season's success.
"We ended up 17th in the nation in punt return with 12.5 yards per return which wasn't too shabby," says Rosburg.
"But having said that, this year we're concentrating on two areas. One, we blocked two punts last season, but we didn't score off of either punt. So we want to make sure that when we do block one, we put it in the end zone. The second thing we're working on this spring with our punt return is we want to get more return opportunities. There were some balls that we thought could have been caught that weren't that we have to get. We have to try to return a higher percentage of the number of the balls, therefore getting more gross yards."
Whether its netting or grossing that Rosburg and his punt return team are after, they should be helped, just as Meyer's kickoff return efforts will be aided, by the further development of talent that is already present. With the number and quality of athletes with which Rosburg is currently working, and judging from athleticism they have already demonstrated, punt returns may become an Irish curse for Notre Dame opponents next fall. Though Jones is currently slated number one, a deep list of eager players may be Rosburg's greatest asset.
Organization and distribution is the current order of the day, but ideally the players and units will not be just anywhere, but everywhere. A disorienting presence is what the special teams will look to be for its opponents next year, a level that can only be reached with the type of commitment to fundamentals and schemes that is currently underway. Though their coaches are many and their strategies diverse, Notre Dame's special teams will all look to make the same contributions next season, ones that will awe its fans and strike fear into each Saturday's rival. Special teams may look and seem different, but no matter how the different teams work and what they do, the wins each helps produce all shine the same.