Irish aim to improve kick returns, coverage

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Yes, TJ Jones has helped put aside Notre Dame's punt return horrors of recent past. But a Navy final drive that began at midfield Saturday underscored a different special teams issue that has plagued the Irish this season: kickoff coverage.

Notre Dame ranks 117th nationally defending kick returns, surrendering 26.05 yards per return. The Fighting Irish gave up 27.4 yards to the Midshipmen's Marcus Thomas on five returns, the last of which went for 49 yards and put Notre Dame's BCS hopes in jeopardy with less than four minutes remaining.

"We did a full extensive look at it," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. "There are some things that I've addressed and I would say this: Sometimes when you look at what you're doing, you're trying to do too much. When it comes to kickoff coverage, we were counting for probably a little bit too much out there, instead of getting the guys down the field and getting after the football.

"I think we were counting for the triple-reverse pass as well as the double-reverse pass and the lonesome end play all at once, instead of getting after it, and we will make those adjustments."

Notre Dame has avoided a game-changing play in the department so far, though it has lacked the momentum-changer from its own kickoff return unit.

Kelly has emphasized a more physical approach to both sides of kickoffs. His return unit ranks 18th nationally in averaging 24.35 yards per kick return, but junior George Atkinson III has yet to take one to the house after bringing back two for scores as a freshman in 2011 (albeit before the NCAA moved kickoffs from the 30 to the 35-yard line).

"Here is what I told our team: I think we've got one of the best kickoff return guys in the country; we've got to get him free," Kelly said. "We've got to do a better job on kickoff return. Although George has done a great job, we have to sustain some blocks. If we could sustain a block for another second, he's going to score a touchdown. So we spent a lot of time on special teams showing our guys if you sustain a block with a little more effort, you're going to get him loose."