Monday, August 24, 2009

The Journey of Twelve Steps...

A full year has passed since the last Twelve Days of Irish Football. That can only mean one thing - just 12 more days until the start of another season! Welcome to the annual countdown of the 12 keys (as voted on by our crack editorial board) that will determine not just the future of the Notre Dame 2009 football team, but most likely the fate of the free world and humanity itself.

Tonight we open with some business to attend to: Coach Charlie Weis released the updated depth chart (final answers on this will be revealed next Tuesday) and announced the awarding of scholarships to walk-on tight end Bobby Burger and punter Eric Maust, who for now retained his punting duties despite a stiff challenge from true freshman Ben Turk. Meanwhile, another new recruit was making waves on the special teams unit, and that is where (our) story of the 2009 Irish begins...

#12 - New Kicks

Finding a reliable kicker has been a problem for Notre Dame. Not necessarily special teams play as a whole, though that unit has had its share of hot-and-cold moments during Weis' 4-year tenure. Kicking, however, has been a consistent sore spot. Despite having a top-flight coverage unit last season (#1 nationally in return yardage allowed and average starting position), the Irish had just 1 touchback for the year out of Ryan Burkhart. Placekicking wise it was a tale of at least two seasons for Brandon Walker, who suffered some big lows - missing 6 of his first 7 attempts in '08 - then course corrected to finish the year 13-for-17 (14/24 overall). Two of those late-season misses were critical though, with a 38-yarder in the fourth overtime against Pittsburgh shanking left, then a 49-yarder against Syracuse (which could've sealed the game) falling just short. That's not to say Walker carries the blame for those losses - he doesn't. It's just that no objective observer could look at the Irish and say there's room to argue over the Irish performance in the kicking department. I'm often fond of stating that numbers don't tell the whole story, but they also don't lie: since the start of the Weis era, the Irish are just 12-for-27 on FG attempts of 40 yards or more.

Enter Nick Tausch. Posting good numbers as a senior in Texas is one thing (career long in high school: 53 yards, 22 of 41 kickoffs were touchbacks), now he just needs to be equally good with 80,000 people watching every swing of the leg. In analyzing the position battle between the Walker, Tausch, and senior Ryan Burkhart, Weis went to one of his most famous euphemisms: "It wasn't close". Which once meant, based on how he applied that term the past two years to Walker, "If we're not well-inside the 30 I'm going for it on fourth down every time". At first Irish fans loved the go-for-broke attitude, especially when it was walk-on D.J. Fitzpatrick handling the placekicking duties. But with three scholarships tied up in kickers for 2009, the "inexperience/lack of ability" card can't really be played, and placekicker is hardly the only position - on the field and off - where that phrase is going to come up in previewing the season. More on that in future installments. The question every follower of the Irish has regarding the kicking game is a simple one: surely one of these guys can step up and provide a legit safety net for when the offense can't quite get to the red zone...right?

Tausch will have first dibs to calm that fear after a strong fall camp. And if he can't quite boom every kickoff to the back of the endzone, look on the bright side: a fully healthy Mike Anello is back for one more ride.

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