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On the punt returns

by Pat, Right behind you, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 19:57

No doubt one of the big stories of the 2011 season is the punt returns, or, more accurately, lack thereof.

But while the 0.3 yards per return average (good for dead last in the country) is awful, it really seems any criticism focusing on that number is missing the point. The real criticism in my mind is why ND seemingly abandoned any attempt to return a punt following the Purdue game.

http://www.cfbstats.com/2011/team/513/puntreturn/offense/gamelog.html

(After all, with such a small sample size (10 returns) ND could have had an artificially high return average as easily as a bad one and that wouldn't change the fact that ND still refused to return punts. Case in point, ND was 119th in the country in punt return percentage, which I calculated as percent of total punts returned. The Irish only returned 14.9% of all punts punted to them. However, the last place team, Northwestern, only returned 12.2% of all punts yet were also 12th in the nation in punt return average with a 12.8 yards/punt mark. A superficial glance would say they were good at punt returns even though they only returned 6 on the entire season.)

Anyway, while understandable that Kelly initially went for the reliable fair catching Goodman after Riddick's drop against USF, the fact that outside of a few cameos by Floyd it was strictly fair catch Goodman seems puzzling. And Kelly's statement that he was going to put off "fixing" punt returns until the spring was one of the more unbelievable things I've heard a coach say.

Was it strictly a function of not having a reliable and athletic punt returner? I find it hard to believe that guys like Toma or Cam McDaniel or even Riddick looked that bad in practice over the course of the season. The other two main options seem like the more likely choices.

1. ND's punt return schemes were poorly designed (and/or executed).

or

2. ND opted for the most conservative strategy, playing against a fake and forgoing punt return yardage in order to prevent a fake punt.

#1 seems plausible, but I don't know enough about punt returns to know that. Anyone who knows their punt returns feel free to chime in.

#2 seems like what we saw plenty of times, as I recall a number of punts when ND was essentially playing the starting defense instead of a punt return team. This might be the most likely answer. But what does it say that the only fake punt that teams tried against ND (I think) succeeded?

Anyone have any thoughts? It does seem like a relatively easy thing to fix, so I'm not too worried about it. But the fact that it should be easy to fix and ND said they weren't even going to bother trying this season seemed sort of mind-blowing to me.

(As an aside, punt return percentages certainly seem to be dropping. The highest percentage of 2011 was 51% (Colorado State). Only 29 teams were over 40%. In 2007, 61 teams were over 40% with the high being 61% (Boise St.)

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