Notre Dame had a great special teams performance last weekend against Virginia and hopes to continue it this weekend against Georgia Tech. To be honest, however, composing this preview was somewhat difficult, considering the fact that Georgia Tech's two opponents thus far are just utterly abysmal, and the stats are hard to predict because of that. However, I will do my best...
Georgia Tech's primary kicker is junior Harrison Butker, who has surprisingly only 18 XP attempts and 0 FG attempts on the season. Last year, he went 11-18 on field goals, with misses from all over the place. Surprisingly, his worst distance was between 30-39, where he made only 2 of 7 kicks. He is also their kickoff guy having a 64.7 average on 21 kickoffs, with 13 touchbacks. Considering the distance he can get on these, it would not shock me if we see a lot of touchbacks and few, if any, returns. Given Georgia Tech's offense and Paul Johnson's playcalling, Butker may not have many, if any, field goal attempts on Saturday. I, for one, hope he does, because he is a wild card from the field goal spot.
Georgia Tech's primary punter is RS junior Ryan Rodwell. He has punted only 3 times in GT's 2 games thus far, good enough for a 40.7 yard average. Only one of these punts was returned, for -2 yards. Last season, Rodwell punted just 32 times for a 40.2 yard average, and only 2 touchbacks. Similar to kicking, Paul Johnson's offense does not force many instances where a punter could have many touchbacks, in my opinion. Rodwell is not the best punter the Irish will face, but he is not terrible. In fact, he is incredibly good at placing the ball inside the 20, having done so on a whopping 1/3 of his punts last season. That said, GT allowed 16 returns on Rodwell's 32 punts last year and gave up an average of 6.6 yards per return. If the Irish can force GT to punt and actually block like they did against UVA, Sanders may have more opportunities this weekend to break through on a big return. What does the GT formation look like?
Georgia Tech, against Alcorn State, protected for the block, from a spread formation, with no gunners at all. If they do this against the Irish, and ND can block, Sanders could have a huge day.
Kick and Punt Return
GT's primary kickoff return man is RS senior DB Jamal Golden, who only has 2 kick returns for 50 yards on the season, a long of 34. He had 30 returns last season for a 24.7 average--and that includes a 68 yard return. It does not appear that GT is very skilled on the kickoff return team, as this is a surprisingly low average, considering how bad GT's opponents have been this season, and considering that in a full schedule last year, Golden basically had the same average.
However, that is not the case when it comes to punts. Golden has 3 punt returns this season for 89 yards, with a long return of 44 yards. That is the kind of performance I expected to see, considering the pathetic nature of GT's opponents thus far. Golden had a 4.1 yard punt return average last season, which is not fantastic, but also not terrible. ND needs to be aware that he has a lot of experience and can break a big return if need be. That said, it would not shock me if he is held in check this weekend.
Basically, special teams from the GT side is a giant wild card this weekend. None of them are the best in the NCAA, but they have the ability to make kicks and returns if the opportunity presents itself. However, given the option offense that GT runs, none of them have had many opportunities to be on the field that much. If ND is to win this weekend, GT's specialists need to be on the field, whether it be for punts or FG opportunities. That is going to be the story of this game. If Rodwell can have 3+ punts, ND may have a shot, as that is 3+ fewer possessions that GT will have to kill the clock and wear down the Irish front.