SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame's special teams have been iffy at best in 2012, and represent the only area in which Alabama has a clear, significant advantage over the Irish in next week's BCS Championship. But with nothing to lose, coach Brian Kelly isn't going to hold anything back Jan. 7 in an effort to improve his team's kick and punt returning success.
"We're going to put all guys on deck in terms of trying to get the best players on the field, since it's a one-shot deal," Kelly said. "I don't have to worry about the next week or the week after, or them getting too many reps, including S-T."
Freshman Davonte Neal has handled Notre Dame's punt returns, gaining 44 yards on 18 chances, averaging 3.7 yards per game (sixth-worst among FBS teams). Contrast that with Alabama's punt returners, who average 25.8 punt return yards per game (16th-best), and that's a decent advantage for the Tide.
Kickoff returns have been a little better for the Irish, but the team's average of 20.04 yards per kickoff return is good for 85th-best nationally. Alabama's 24.84 yards per return average is 13th nationally, despite a difference of about four yards from Notre Dame.
On punts and field goals, Alabama holds an advantage that's much slighter. The real issue here is Notre Dame's punt and kick returners have rarely been able to do much to improve the team's field position, while Alabama's players in those roles have been able to do just that.
This isn't to say Notre Dame's special teams have been abysmal, though -- there are plenty of teams worse than the Irish in these categories across college football. But Alabama has been better to the point where there's no argument about their advantage, unlike on offense and defense.
Kelly wouldn't reveal which players could see time on returns against Alabama, although Cierre Wood -- who worked with Notre Dame's punt returners during fall camp and averaged 9 carries over his last five games -- would be a likely option.
"We have not been spectacular, but we hadn't stunk the joint up either," Kelly said. "We just need to continue to hold serve in S-T and maybe we can catch lightning in a bottle on a return, or get a block, something to that effect. But our concern is making sure we just take great care of the football and flip the field when we need to flip the field."