Sept. 2, 2003
by Chris Masters
Look up the word “special” in the dictionary and you’ll find the following definition: “that which surpasses what is common or usual; exceptional.” Without question, the Notre Dame special teams unit meets that definition and more.
Last season, the Irish scored four touchdowns via special teams and added another 42 points from its field goal unit. In addition, Notre Dame was perfect on extra point efforts all year and blocked three kicks (two field goals and a punt). The Irish punt squad also was rock solid, not allowing a single blocked kick while pinning the opposition inside its own 20-yard line 30 times and allowing foes to average less than nine yards per return.
With a resume like that, it’s no wonder Notre Dame special teams coach Buzz Preston believes his unit can be a cornerstone for Irish success again in 2003.
“At times last season, we were able to make some big plays on special teams and that’s sometimes an overlooked area but one that is just as important,” Preston said.
“This year, we want to be able to continue pressuring other teams in the kicking game and forcing them to respect us in all areas of the game, not just offense and defense.”
When discussing Notre Dame’s special teams, one must begin with the kicking game. In senior Nicholas Setta, the Irish are blessed with one of the top placekickers in the nation. A two-time Lou Groza Award candidate (and 2001 semifinalist), Setta owns an active streak of 87 consecutive extra points made, the second-longest streak in school history. He currently ranks fourth in school history with 37 field goals and needs 15 treys to surpass John Carney as the most successful kicker in Notre Dame annals.
The Irish will have to fill some large shoes at punter after the graduation of two-time Ray Guy Award semifinalist Joey Hildbold. Setta is no stranger to punting, having logged four kicks for 160 yards during the 2000 season. Junior D.J. Fitzpatrick, who played at Marian High School in nearby Mishawaka, will serve as Setta’s backup at both kicking positions.
Two other positions that will need to be filled are long snapper and holder. Senior tight end Gary Godsey will get a look at the snapper position. Meanwhile, senior walk-on quarterback Matt Krueger has assumed the holding duties with Fitzpatrick backing him up.
One area that will not be a concern for Notre Dame this season is the return game. The Irish boast one of the nation’s most electrifying kick returners in senior Vontez Duff. Last season, the native of Copperas Cove, Texas, became the first player in school history to log a punt, kickoff and interception return for a score in the same year. Duff ranked eighth in the nation in kickoff return average last year, logging 27.7 yards per runback. For his career, the Irish speedster is averaging 28.5 yards per kickoff return, a mark which instills a great deal of confidence in Preston.
Complementing Duff in the return game is senior Julius Jones. The native of Big Stone Gap, Va., did not play in ’02, but his return instantly adds another dangerous and speedy threat on kick returns for the Irish. Jones ranks second in school history for career kick return yardage (1,857), career kickoff returns (59) and career kickoff return yardage (1,435), trailing only ’87 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown in all three categories.
In addition to Duff and Jones, sophomore wide receivers Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight are expected to see time on kick returns this season. The young duo both possess excellent hands and exceptional quickness that should make them important contributors on special teams.