Notre Dame faces Louisville on the football for the first time in school history on senior day on Saturday. Louisville boasts a talented special teams unit that will keep the Irish on their toes. However, there are some weak spots.
Louisville has a group of highly talented kick returners. Louisville's primary kickoff man is sophomore running back Brandon Radcliff. Radcliff has 9 returns for 198 yards, an average of 22 yards per return. His longest return of the year was 62 yards vs. Syracuse.
You can see in this return that Louisville's blockers flow the Syracuse coverage team to the left. On the other side, a great seal was made so the flow of players created a hole. After that, it was off to the races. Syracuse's coverage team should be applauded for taking fantastic recovery angles. After that hole opened up, this should have been a touchdown. Still, that's a heck of a return by Louisville. Great blocking.
Louisville's other return man is also their most prolific. Senior running back Corvin Lamb has 6 returns for 187 yards, an average of 31.2 yards per return. He has one return for a touchdown, a 97-yard return against Miami.
This return was eerily similar to the Northwestern return vs. Minnesota. By the time Lamb got to the 10 yard line, the hole was there and all he had to do was run at top speed. Again, great blocking on a team that took poor angles and failed to maintain lanes.
Outside of Radcliffe and Lamb, wide receiver James Quick has 3 returns for 52 yards, good enough for a 17.3 yard average (18 yard long). Cornerback Charles Gaines has 2 returns for 38 yards, a 19 yard average, and 22 yard long. In the "squib/onsides" return group, tight end Charles Standberry has one return for 18 yards, fullback Luke Brohm has one return for 9 yards, and runningback LJ Scott has one return for 12 yards.
Radcliff and Lamb are two dynamic kick returners. Personally, I would place them in a group just below Ty Montgomery, and I mean that as a compliment. Montgomery is probably the best kick returner in the country and Louisville has two guys that remind me of Montgomery.
Louisville also has a group of prolific punt returners to go along with their kick returners. It will be a fantastic matchup against ND's 15th ranked punt coverage unit. For Louisville, James Quick has a ridiculous 20 returns for 148 yards, an average of 7.4 yards per return, with a long of 24, against Florida International. Unfortunately for us, UL-FIU special teams highlights are difficult to find.
EDIT: A friendly Louisville commenter below (Hi guys, welcome to OFD!) pointed out that Quick has been suspended indefinitely since November 8. Petrino said in his recent Press Conference that Quick may have an "opportunity" to play against Notre Dame. It is debatable whether we will see him on Saturday.
Similar to the kick return unit, Louisville's second punt returner is also its most prolific. Wideout Eli Rogers has 7 returns for 78 yards. His longest return is 47 yards, against NC State.
Outside of the two primary ones, four other players have returned at least one punt. Senior wideout Kai De La Cruz has 3 returns for 7 yards, an average of 2.3, long of 5. Michaelee Harris has 1 return for -8 yards. Matt Milton has one return for 5 yards. Lastly, Stacy Thomas, a defensive end, has one return for 10 yards.
Quick and Rogers are both very good return men. I am looking for Brindza to punt smartly against the Cardinals. Hangtime and placement near the sidelines will be key to succeeding on Saturday.
ND Kick Return
Louisville's primary kickoff man is John Wallace. Wallace has 53 kickoffs on the year for 3,341 yards, an average of 63 yards per kick. He has 21 touchbacks, good enough for a 39.6% touchback average.
Against the Cardinals, opponents have 35 returns for 792 yards, an average of 22.6 yards per return. The longest return against the Cardinals was for 45 yards by Florida International. Video review of that play is sort of fruitless for two reasons. One, I can't find a good copy to critique (who would have guessed that FIU-Louisville replays would be hard to come by) and two, the weather in that game was arguably worse than the ND-Stanford matchup.
Despite this disaster in the downpour, Louisville's allowed average of 22.6 yards per return puts them at 98th in the country in kick return defense. While they have not allowed a touchdown yet, the 22.6 yards means that ND could get a good boost in field position, should they field any kickoffs (see what I did there?). The return team needs smart blocking and Carlisle needs to follow his blockers to take advantage of this on Saturday.
ND Punt Return
If ND is going to take advantage anywhere, it should be here. Louisville's primary punter is Ryan Johnson. Johnson has 52 punts on the year for 2,110 yards, an average of 40.6 yards per punt. He has a long of 57, only 4 toucbacks, and only 17 fair catches. He has placed 12 of his punts inside the 20 and has an amazing 10 over 50 yards.
Like their kickoff coverage unit, the Louisville punt coverage is just as spotty. Opponents have 26 returns against the Cardinals for 235 yards, and average of 9 yards per return. One touchdown has been scored against Lousville's punt team, a 72 yard return by Clemson.
And suddenly, it all makes sense, and I can smile. This is, for better or worse, a hybrid traditional punt formation, based on the line spacing and bunching. The players are too close for this to be considered a spread formation. This would explain why Louisville's net punting ranking in the NCAA is 102nd. Their punt return defense is 91st in the country. They are the worst coverage unit in the ACC. It's not Michigan-level badness but this is pretty darn close, when it comes to punt coverage. However, ND's punt return unit has been relatively non-existent as of late. Hopefully they can show us something on Saturday that reminds us of what they were at the beginning of the season.
John Wallace is Louisville's field goal man. He is also very good and very consistent. He is 13-16 on the year, good enough for 81.2%. He is 2-2 from 20-29, 5-6 from 30-39, 5-7 from 40-49, and is a perfect 1-1 for over 50, a 51 yard long boot. ND has their work cut out for them. His only misses were a 37 yarder against NC State, and a 45 and 46 yarders against Wake Forest. ND has their work cut out for them because Wallace is as close to Aguayo-automatic as it gets.
As always, I welcome your questions and comments below.