Notebook: Kelly wants Notre Dame special teams to be special

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Amid a handful of subtle position switches, some uniform number swaps, and staff and scheme tweaks, perhaps the most significant offseason shift for Notre Dame football so far pertains to special teams.

Which were decidedly unspecial in 2013.

“We went out and clinicked,” Irish fifth-year head coach Brian Kelly said Friday in advance of the 15 spring practices that kick off Monday morning. “I won’t tell you where we went, but we went with some NFL and some college programs. And we took our film, with our hat in our hand, and said, ‘What are we doing here? What are we missing?’”

Statistically, that question was easier to answer perhaps than it was schematically. Of the four return/coverage categories, the Irish ranked higher than 80th nationally in just one of them — kickoff returns (21st).

The biggest problem area was kickoff coverage, where the Irish were 120th out of 123 FBS teams in 2013. That included allowing 26.5 yards per return in a 14-10 Irish escape of USC, the country’s worst kickoff return team at 14.4.

ND ranked 84th in punt coverage. And in punt returns, for the first time during the Kelly Era, ND was within three yards — but still short — of the national average, yet ranked a pedestrian 80th (7.1 per return).

“It wasn’t scheme as much as it was some coaching points,” Kelly said of the advice he received, “and moving some personnel around — some speed players versus some power players. I think we’ve got a better feel for the positioning of the players in the right positions.

“So we’re going to make some adjustments to some of the looks that we have in our punt and punt return. We think we’ve answered some questions in our coverage teams, and it’s unacceptable to be where we are.”

Tight ends coach Scott Booker will remain the special teams coordinator, but all nine assistants and Kelly will have a role in the new look moving forward, the head coach said.

“We went out with a sense of being very open to all things as it relates to special teams, because we’ve got to get better there,” Kelly said. “And we picked up some things I think can really help us.”

Golson impressions

NCAA rules now allow coaches to supervise winter workouts, but not to the point teams can run offensive and defensive plays. So Kelly’s first look in 10½ months at returning quarterback Everett Golson throwing the ball will come at Monday morning’s practice.

Kelly still got a sense over the past few weeks that the senior-to-be, who takes his first supervised snaps since last spring’s Blue-Gold Game, is more advanced from a football standpoint than Golson was at the time of his academic-related suspension last May.

“He’s a bigger kid, thicker,” Kelly said. “He definitely has a higher IQ as it relates to what we’re talking about from a football standpoint. I could talk to him about things I didn’t believe I could talk to him about (before) relative to protections, hot routes, just the nuances of the passing game. So, clearly, he has evolved there.”

Golson spent most of the fall working with private quarterback tutor George Whitfield Jr. in San Diego while serving his suspension.

Old faces, new places

Perhaps the most impacting of the position switches at ND this spring will come from senior Matthias Farley’s move from safety to cornerback.

Farley played in all 26 of ND’s games the past two seasons at safety and started 19 of those contests. But he saw both his efficiency and playing time wane late last season.

The 5-foot-11, 204-pounder, who played wide receiver in 2011, had 49 tackles each of the past two seasons with two picks in 2013 and one in 2012.

“He’s a really good athlete and he can run and he’s got very good ball skills,” Kelly said. “We’re going to give him an opportunity to compete and take a look at him. We’re going to play more than two corners. We’re going to play as many as four.”

Cornerback-turned-wide receiver Josh Atkinson, who has been running indoor track this winter, is back at cornerback. Wide receiver James Onwualu flips to safety, while safety John Turner moves to an outside linebacker position behind Jaylon Smith and Ben Councell.

Amir Carlisle will get looks at both running back and wide receiver this spring, not exactly a huge departure from 2013. Doug Randolph changed both his position (outside linebacker to inside) and number (19 to 44).

Other uniform number changes include safety Eilar Hardy (back at his old No. 4 after a trial with 16), wide receiver William Fuller (now 7, after wearing 15) and offensive lineman Hunter Bivin (swapping out 57 for 70).

One coach will have new duties. Safeties coach Bob Elliott will now coach outside linebackers. Cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks will add safeties to his plate and will get an assist from recently hired graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy, a former standout safety himself for the Irish.

Injury report

The clean bill of health Kelly may have been most excited about Friday was his own. Sort of.

“”I had five days of skiing in Deer Valley and I did not get hurt, which is a miracle,” Kelly said of his recent vacation to Park City, Utah.

The players whose contact will be severely limited or eliminated all together during spring drills are starting center Nick Martin (knee), staring inside linebacker Jarrett Grace (broken leg), backup outside linebacker Ben Councell (knee), backup cornerback Devin Butler (shoulder) and a player who will be in the mix to be the starting nose guard, Tony Springmann (knee).

There’s some gray area with junior safety Nicky Baratti, who missed the 2013 season with a shoulder injury.

“He’s going to be involved a lot.” Kelly said of a player who is a potential starter despite the missed time last season. “He’s going to be able to be evaluated fully, even if he is limited in some degree relative to contact. Maybe we put a red jersey (on him) in the spring game or something, but he’s going to be involved in everything.”

-- The combination of a chronic knee condition and an internship opportunity prompted wide receiver Luke Massa from following through on his fifth-year option. The senior from Cincinnati will remain in school this semester and is on target to graduate in May, but his football career is over.

Massa, who came to ND as a quarterback in Kelly’s first recruiting class (2010), underwent surgery on the meniscus in his left knee in mid-January. It’s the same knee he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in back in the spring of 2012. His knee has been slow to respond to the most recent post-surgical rehab.

“I’m just not the same player, and I’m competitive as hell,” he said. “Those two aspects are very frustrating.”

Kelly weighs in on rule

The controversial 10-second rule proposal goes to the NCAA’s Oversight Committee on Thursday, presumably now with very little momentum to pass.

The rule was designed to slow down fastbreak, no-huddle offenses in all but the final two minutes of each half, so that defenses could make substitutions. Its proponents pushed it as a safety issue for defensive players.

“I would not be in favor of it if you can’t show me that there’s data that goes to the heart of player safety,” Kelly said.

And that’s the problem: the only widespread data that has surfaced since the proposal went public earlier this month suggests that teams with slow-play actually have more injuries on defense than those that face fast-play offenses.

Kelly wants to increase ND’s offensive tempo next season. The Irish averaged 67.4 offensive plays a game in 2013. The national average is 72. But the Irish ran off a season-high 90 plays in their 29-16 Pinstripe Bowl win over Rutgers on Dec. 28 when they played primarily uptempo.

Alabama’s Nick Saban is the most outspoken of the rule’s proponents. It’s interesting to note that the Crimson Tide’s defense averaged the fewest defensive plays in the FBS in 2013 (57.9) and averaged the fewest combined offensive and defensive plays (119). The national average is 144.8 combined plays.

Union talk

The union movement former Northwestern University quarterback Kain Colter is trying to gather momentum for has not gone unnoticed by Kelly.

Colter is the face of the College Athletes Player Union (CAPA), an organization that is pushing for student-athletes at private schools to be recognized as employees and for the ability to collectively bargain with schools for certain conditions, concessions and rights.

Interestingly, Colter has met with some resistance from his own former teammates, but the case last week moved into the first stage of what could eventually be a lengthy legal process, when the National Labor Relations Board heard testimony on the subject.

“I think there’s so many hurdles here that I didn’t think it was the time or the place to bring it up to our team,” Kelly said. “But it was a discussion that I had with our athletic director (Jack Swarbrick) and our staff, just because if it was brought up by a parent or brought up by somebody, that we were all of the same opinion.

“And that is, as we stand right now, we believe the value of a degree from Notre Dame stands by itself and that should be just compensation for the time that a student-athlete gives to Notre Dame.”

EHansen@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza is one of the few areas of ND's special teams that wasn't in need of an overhaul. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

PRACTICE DATES: March 3, 5, 19, 21, 22, 26. 28, 29, 31; April 2, 4, 5, 7, 9

BLUE-GOLD GAME: April 12, 12:30 p.m., Notre Dame Stadium

ND COACHES CLINIC: March 20-22