SOUTH BEND – Going back in time two-plus decades, Notre Dame football fans often wondered how programs such as Ball State could consistently have better kickers than the nationally-renowned Fighting Irish.
Fast-forward to 2013 and many wonder the same thing in regards to punt returns. Notre Dame may have played for the 2013 BCS National Championship in January, but when it came to this particular area of the special teams, the Irish don't find themselves in the midst of Alabama, but battling the likes of North Texas.
If Wednesday's news regarding the punt return game is any indication of how 2013 will go, Notre Dame Nation needs to cling to its rosary beads.
It was announced on Wednesday that last year's leading punt return threat, sophomore-to-be DaVonte' Neal, was “no longer part of the football program,” according to Irish coach Brian Kelly.
Neal joined classmate and Irish wide receiver, Justin Ferguson, in deciding to transfer. Neither was made available for comment and Kelly didn't elaborate as to the reasons for the transfers.
“All I can tell you is when we break to stretch (at practice),” Kelly said, “and they're not out there, they are no longer on the roster. The roster is going to shift and move. We're going to have some additions and we're going to have some deletions.”
Neal did contribute to the program as a true freshman. However, before anyone begins to lament this being a significant loss, they need to keep in mind just how deplorable the Irish were in the punt return game a year ago.
Notre Dame ranked 116th out of 120 NCAA FBS squads with a 2.19-yard return average. So it isn't like Neal isn't replaceable.
“Next guy steps up,” Kelly said. “You know me, it's next guy in. We just fill it in.”
In fairness to Neal, Notre Dame has been terrible in the punt return game since 2009 when Golden Tate averaged over 14 yards per return.
In 2010, the Irish were paced by former Bishop Dwenger High School graduate John Goodman, who averaged just 1.3 yards per return, while a year later (2011) that number dropped to a minuscule .6 yards return average. So it isn't like Irish fans have overly high expectations for who takes over this fall. Kelly began auditioning guys on Wednesday to “fill it in.”
“There will be a number of guys,” Kelly said. “When (injured running back) Amir Carlisle comes back, he'll get a chance. C.J. Prosise is doing a great job. We're really excited about C.J. You'll see a lot of them this spring.”
Kelly also said that senior wide receiver TJ Jones will get an opportunity to show what he can do, as well.
After serving as a head coach into his third decade, Kelly said no decision that a young person makes in regards to leaving a program really ever surprises him.
“Nothing surprises me,” Kelly said. “I just deal with when I meet (with coaches) at 7 a.m., who are the guys that are here? I focus strictly on the program and the guys that I coach. I know that (Neal and Ferguson) are no longer in the program, nor will they be in the future.”
This is the second time since spring football started last week where Kelly had to deal with this issue. Last week, he announced that reserve quarterback Gunner Kiel was leaving the program. And on Wednesday, Kelly was quite frank about what the future held.
“There will be more guys leaving,” Kelly said. “There'll be more guys coming. This is a process that every year you go through. You're going to have some additions. You're going to have some deletions. But we didn't miss a step. Our guys will go out and compete. They know (and) they've been through it.”