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SOUTH BEND - Who knew that there were more than aesthetic reasons behind installing the field turf within Notre Dame Stadium? As it turns out, there are actually football reasons behind wanting a nice surface to entertain the 80,795 weekly fans, as well.
The 15th-ranked Fighting Irish (1-0) will host Michigan (1-0) Saturday at 7:42 p.m. (NBC), and what the national television audience just might witness is something special, as in good “special” teams play from the home team.
Notre Dame opened its 2014 season with a resounding 48-17 victory over Rice, and there was nothing more startling to the Irish Nation than actually being able to witness some semblance of a punt return game.
Irish returners Cody Riggs and Greg Bryant teamed up to return five Owl punts for a total of 80 yards (16 yards per return).
“I think we are probably getting a little too much credit for it,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “And we probably took a little too much (criticism) in defending it in years past.”
The Irish have been abysmal when it comes to its return game (both punts and kickoffs have been equally disappointing to the program’s fan base) in recent years. Notre Dame amassed just 14 yards fewer in punt return yardage last Saturday alone, as it had the previous two seasons combined. If you go back three seasons, Notre Dame has totaled just 200 yards in punt returns, so it more than likely won’t even officially be autumn before it surpasses that total this season.
And Kelly said a big reason for this is the new turf.
“More than anything else, the biggest difference for me was our ability to stick our foot in the ground,” Kelly explained. “The surface really made a difference for us.
“I know that might sound a little bit crazy for you, but we were able to really make some sharp cuts on that surface that allowed us to get north and south.”
But at some point, talent has to be involved, and both Riggs and Bryant not only demonstrated athleticism, but a couple of traits - effort and a lack of fear – which Kelly also said were significant.
“The effort was outstanding,” Kelly said. “We think that the personnel shifts that we have made on the team have made a difference, as well.”
A season ago, Riggs was playing for Florida, while Bryant missed most of his first year in South Bend with an injury. As much as the two are brave, they are also beaming with confidence.
“When you talk about the two returners,” Kelly boasted, “they’re both fearless.”
Bryant was “fearless” to the point of ignorance on one occasion Saturday. He failed to fair catch a punt – inside the Irish 10-yard line – but even more so, did so while the Rice coverage team was swarming him. He still managed to pick up some yardage.
“Greg is fearless and does not know what a fair catch is,” Kelly laughed following the win. “So all of those people wondering ‘Why is he catching the ball?’ He came up with the ‘I can’t hear you, my ear plug is in (excuse).”
Riggs will probably see the most significant amount of time back there catching – and returning – punts. However, due to his exorbitant defensive workload at safety, Kelly has to get Bryant involved at times, as well.
“We’re going to continue to use both,” Kelly said. “Cody is taking a lot of snaps, so we want to make sure that we keep him healthy for the entire season. We can not afford to lose Cody. We’ve got to be able to give him a blow, given the circumstances.”
Kelly addressed – albeit very briefly – the continued suspensions of Irish veterans DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, and Ishaq Williams, but there is nothing new to report on the matter.
“I have no update,” Kelly said.
But Kelly did leave a crease open for something possibly happening soon. When asked if the situation could be resolved this week, Kelly replied “Sure, absolutely.”