Notre Dame football: Anello made special teams very special

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - The biggest piece of mythology that found its way into the Mike Anello narrative, back when he was a special teams cult hero at Notre Dame, was that the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder was devoid of athletic ability.

He was Rudy with a higher motor and a better GPA (3.937), supposedly.

Here’s the myth-buster: The only time Anello was ever clocked in the 40-yard dash during his ND playing career, at the end of spring practice his junior year, the one-time walk-on ripped off a 4.45 ... with no training and a testy hamstring.

“It was frustrating,” Anello recalled Wednesday night from his office in Portland, Ore., where he’s the director of business development for a firm called Axiom, “I think I could have gotten into the high 4.3s, but that’s just what I believe, because I never got to run it with a full bill of health.”

What he did get to accomplish was being a part of a kickoff coverage team that ranked No. 1 in the FBS back in 2008, Anello’s last season as a walk-on. (He was invited back for a fifth year, on scholarship, in 2009).

Five years later, the Irish (7-3) head into a Senior Day matchup with Brigham Young (7-3), Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, just two notches from the 123rd and bottom rung of the FBS ladder in that category. Opponents are averaging 26.1 yards per kickoff return against ND, almost 10 yards more than Anello’s group did (16.5). And even the bad return teams are prospering.

USC, which ND edged 14-10 back on Oct. 19, is the nation’s worst kickoff return team (14.3), but the Trojans managed a 26.5 average in two returns against the Irish. Saturday the Irish see the best return team on their schedule to date — BYU ranks eighth. Seven days later, they get the nation’s No. 1 kickoff return team in Stanford.

Anello, who had an uncanny 23 tackles in 72 opportunities in 2008 (22 punt returns, 50 kickoff returns), knows the constants of a good return team. Generally, they have a return man who hits the crease at full speed, rather than trying to move laterally at any point.

They also tend to be varied in their scheme, often sending a player around the back side to pick off a coverage guy from the side.

“Washington was a team like that when I was at Notre Dame,” Anello said. “When you watch film of teams that use that tactic constantly, your coverage team is going to play a step slower, because you’re wondering, ‘Am I going to be the guy who gets picked off?’ You just have to be that much more aware.”

There are more layers to what led to ND ascending to the No. 1 spot in kickoff returns, according to Anello, but it started with a coach who spent 80 percent of his time with special teams and the other 20 percent coaching a position.

During Anello’s time, that coach was Brian Polian, now the head coach at Nevada.

“If you have a guy whose No. 1 responsibility is special teams, he ends up watching more film,” Anello said. “He’s going to get you prepared. Every practice we had, the first 20 minutes of every meeting time was special teams. We’d go over the scheme, watch film and go over who we had to account for and how we were going to do that.

“And it’s not just coverage stuff. Brian Polian had us set up for some great fakes on punts and field goals. We were always ready to use them if need be.”

The second component was scheme. As Anello describes it, most coverage teams send eight guys down the field in lanes, with two safeties who hang back in case something breaks down and the kicker.

“Those eight guys are instructed to stay in their lanes and make the tackle,” Anello said. “You don’t void your lane, because if you do, you create a crease, and that’s when you see people able to take one back 50 to 60 yards.”

Polian’s idea was to use four guys running down the field in their lanes, but use four “head hunters” who were unpredictable in their path. Anello and safety Sergio Brown formed one tandem. Bigger-bodied players, but with speed, would form the other. Linebacker Darius Fleming, Steve Filer and Steve Paskorz along with safety Harrison Smith typically rotated in at those spots.

“Sergio and I would loop into different positions,” Anello said. “And we’d move around the field a bit, so the people trying to block you couldn’t really account for you and couldn’t figure out whose responsibility you were. Brian’s philosophy was just go down and make tackles, and that’s what we did.”

“Why doesn’t everyone do it? I don’t know how many people know about it. Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech is a guy who’s very innovative with special teams, but a lot of teams don’t spend that much time on them. Coach (Charlie) Weis really supported coach Polian. And once we had early success, we had a pride to just build on that until we got to be No. 1.”

The final layer is building that culture, getting players to buy in to want to play special teams and understand the importance of them.

“If you look at some of the best teams, they struggle on special teams, because no one wants to play them,” Anello said. “And people don’t appreciate those yards can change games and change momentum. But we did.

“A lot of guys just go through the motions on special teams, even on game day. Whereas you look at our guys, everyone was going down hitting, trying to make plays and carrying out their responsibility. We had a swagger.”

Anello still does. He is still active in athletics, but marries it with another passion — raising money for St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which battles childhood cancer.

Next June, he plans to team up with four other former Irish football players to raise $44,000 — or more — in memory of former teammate Asaph Schwapp. The former ND fullback, who wore No. 44, died from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in May at age 26.

They’ll do that by participating in the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon, which beings with a plunge into 52-degree water near the famous (now-closed) prison near San Francisco. Former Irish quarterbacks Evan Sharpley and Dayne Crist have already signed on.

“I’ve got a few other guys I’m trying to work on who are on the fence,” said Anello, who already has participated in the event twice. “I’m not sure that Dayne knows exactly what he’s in for, but he’s all in.”

And Anello is still all in for Notre Dame.

“I make time to watch them every Saturday,” he said. “And I’d never dream of offering (coach) Brian Kelly advice. His wisdom is far and above anything I could ever touch. The one thing I’ve said repeatedly is I didn’t get the chance to play for him, but I wish I had.

“I saw a lot of things he did when he came in that impressed me. I think he’s going to win a national championship one day, and I can’t wait to see it.”

Mike Anello (37) causes Syracuse's Ryan Howard to fumble on a kick off in a 2008 game. SBT file photo