Tuesday, September 02, 2008

You'll Rue the Day You Crossed Me Blogger

We received not one but two - TWO! - emails asking what happened to the countdown. My reaction was, "Wait a minute, we've got readers?" Next, "What do you mean what happened?" Turns out Blogger was archiving the last four days of posts and never actually published the blog since last Thursday...so all those past stories are up now, a little late but better than never. We move now into the Top 5.

Having attended last night's UCLA-Tennessee contest with Paul (and having been true LA 'fans' and skipped out after than Volunteer touchdown late in the 4th quarter, missing the end of the game and overtime), I cannot stress the importance of this one enough:

#5 - Kick it To Me Straight

In Wedding Crashers, Rule #76 is "No Excuses, Play Like a Champion." The second half of this sentiment is already well represented inside the Notre Dame locker room, but it is time for the first to be surgically attached to the kicking and coverage units as well as their co-leaders, Charlie Weis and Brian Polian.

Weis started his coaching career as a special teams mind. He'd been on the job at Notre Dame less than 30 minutes when he said his initial impression of the 2004 team was that their special teams play "stunk". He preached how quick improvement in the "third phase" was usually the easiest path to a quick team turnaround. He got players who'd become disaffected and buried on the depth chart to buy into the idea that special teams work can win a game or two every year.

And yet he somehow couldn't muster enough confidence or moxie to find anyone on the roster able to attempt a 41-yard field goal against Navy.

Questionable kick decisions aside, the Irish special teams in the past two years have taken a noticeable downturn. The explosiveness is gone from the return unit, kickoff and punt coverage has been middling to poor, and all of it exacerbated by the fact that despite having two scholarship kickers, the Irish did not once put the ball into the endzone for a touchback last season (in their defense though, that lack of scoring on offense afforded few attempts). Criticized as he was for not sending then-freshman Brandon Walker out to win the game versus the Midshipmen, could you really blame Weis for having doubts about a guy who was 6 for 12, and an even more dubious 1 for 7 on kicks longer than 30 yards?

Rather than shrug off his problem, Weis elected to face it head on, admitting during Februrary's signing day press meeting, "I screwed [special teams] up." And as the meeting between the Bruins and Vols last night showed, do not write off the kicker and punter as purely disposable parts. UCLA turned a blocked punt into 7 points, then relied on four missed field goals in closing out UT 27-24 in overtime. Oh, what might have been had Fulmer's boys taken care of business on special teams.

So what evidence do we have that things will markedly improve for the Irish this year? Let's focus on kicking. Walker is settled for field goals and extra points, while junior Ryan Burkhart handles kickoff duties. A lot of anecdotal evidence has littered the practice reports about improved leg strength and accuracy, particularly from Walker, as cause for hope. Weis also made a point of heaping some pressure on the sophomore early in camp with practice-ending kicks that would either free the Irish (with a make) or earn the whole team extra sprints (via miss). Walker made it, sending his teammates on a wild celebration that hopefully will be repeated at some point this season. Right now, like many other elements, the strength of the Irish kicking game is an unknown commodity. It needs to become known in a very, very short span of time - because while hope springs eternal before the season, the Irish do not have much margin for error. Such teams often find their fortunes turned on the foot of their kicker.

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