Aug. 10, 2004
by Nicole Rapagnani The Notre Dame Fighting Irish have a walk-on placekicker and a punter who has never stepped foot on the collegiate playing field as the top competitors for the starting kicker and punter positions. The Irish also have a former quarterback-turned-receiver as the probable punt returner for the 2004 season. That may seem less than ideal, but that would be presumptive-Irish special teams coach Buzz Preston has full confidence in this lineup. With the experience of the 2003 season under his belt, senior D.J. Fitzpatrick will be looked to fill the role of placekicker again this season. Concerning the possibility of Fitzpatrick filling both the role of kicker and punter, Preston said, “I hope that D.J. will be the guy in one phase rather than two this season. There’s not as much pressure to perform on both sides that way. It’s really tough to do both. When there’s only one guy doing both, it can be harder to fill that spot if something happens.” Preston hopes to see sophomore Geoffrey Price step up as the team’s punter, despite having no collegiate game experience. But Preston also has faith that Fitzpatrick could fill both roles again if he needed to. “There’s a positive side to it,” Preston said. The fact that he [Fitzpatrick] has already done it for part of a season, it’s not going to be totally new to him. He’s prepared and has experience on how to do it and be effective.” Aside from top prospects Fitzpatrick and Price, other players competing for the kicking and punting positions include second year walk-ons Craig Cardillo, Bobby Renkes, and Carl Gioia. According to Preston, “If anything happens to D.J., any one of these guys may be in the forefront, or they may be regardless.” Another area in transition this season is the return game with the loss of the playmaking duo of Julius Jones and Vontez Duff, two of the most dangerous kick returners in Notre Dame history. At the end of his college career, Jones passed 1987 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown in three categories, taking the Irish career records for total kick return yardage (2,104), kickoff returns (72) and kickoff return yardage (1,678). Jones also had 110 career return kicks, which is second all-time, right behind Duff who stands first with 120 career return kicks. Adding to his list of accomplishments, Duff finished third on the all-time Irish total kick return yardage chart with 1,955 yards and fourth on the Notre Dame career kickoff return yardage list with 1,230 yards. While these two will be missed to a certain extent, Preston has confidence in the ability and possibilities of both old and new faces in the return game. Returning players include senior cornerback Dwight Ellick and junior receiver Rhema McKnight and senior receiver Matt Shelton, who will all be expected to get things going. New to the mix is fifth-year senior Carlyle Holiday. Holiday has excellent speed and athleticism and is considered a dangerous runner on the open field. Moving from quarterback to wide receiver this year, Preston hopes to add to Holiday’s list by utilizing him in the return game this season.
Carlyle Holiday hopes to put his athletic abilities to use in Notre Dame’s return game in 2004.
Other new faces who could shine are sophomores Isaiah Gardner and Ambrose Wooden, two players with sprinter’s speed that Preston believes could be special return men. Returning players on special teams will also play a significant role. Offensive linemen Scott Raridon and Casey Dunn will be looked to again for long snapping duties, having done the job in 2003. “Raridon has done a fine job snapping for us, and Dunn did a solid job stepping into the shoes of John Crowther,” Preston said. Also expected to help will be linebackers Corey Mays (who had two blocked kicks last season), Jerome Collins and Derek Curry, tight end Anthony Fasano, and fullback Rashon Powers-Neal. Possible punt rushers and protectors are Shelton and Gardner. With the capabilities of this lineup, despite what it may appear first-hand, the outlook is anything but bleak. Preston is excited about the possibilities of his special teams players. “We are expecting a much more solid performance in everything that we do,” Preston said. “We will look to cover and kick as a more consistent unit. We will look for better field positioning to create more plays. We’ve got to be ready to go.” Fitzpatrick Rises To The Occasion Before the 2003 season, the name D.J. Fitzpatrick was unfamiliar to most Fighting Irish football fans. Now, he is anything but anonymous after an impressive 2003 season in which he was forced into the spotlight by unimaginable circumstances. A senior walk-on, Fitzpatrick has earned respect at his position after taking on the role of both punter and kicker for the Irish in 2003 after three-time Lou Groza Award candidate Nicholas Setta incurred a leg injury during a kickoff five games into the season against Pittsburgh. Setta had served as the placekicker for Notre Dame for four years and taken on kickoff and punting duties after the graduation of Joey Hildbold. Setta started the season for the Irish converting 9-of-10 field goals and all five extra-point kicks. Setta also had 26 punts for 1,064 yards, averaging 40.9 yards per punt. But all that experience and talent was lost suddenly, throwing Fitzpatrick into a tough situation. Fitzpatrick exceeded expectations by stepping up to fill the role of the injured Setta. With the experience of only one game with just one punt prior to the 2003 season, Fitzpatrick made 12-of-17 field goals, ending the season with an 8-of-8 streak, and kicking 44 punts for 1,621 yards (36.8 average). Fitzpatrick also proved that he could perform under pressure. As time ran out in a 24-24 game against Navy, Fitzpatrick kicked a 40-yard field goal to give the Irish the win, extending the Irish winning streak in the series to 40 games. “One of the major highlights of the season was D.J. kicking and Matt Krueger being the holder in the field goal against Navy to win the game,” said coach Buzz Preston. “D.J. came through in a tough situation.” Now settled in to his role as the starter, look for Fitzpatrick to build on his 2003 success this season. NOTE: The special teams preview is the first of nine previews that will be posted on www.und.com before the end of the month. You can access the schedule and archive of the previews here: Season Previews