SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- To be clear, Brian Kelly was kidding Tuesday when he said he would grade his special teams as an A+ through seven games.
By not turning the ball over and by averaging more than 0.3 yards per return in the regular season, the Irish's punt return unit has actually markedly improved from last season. Problem is, at 111th in the nation with a 2.83 yards per return average, it still isn't very good this season.
Defending punts and kicks, Notre Dame is Nos. 30 and 92, respectively, and neither will cut it against an Oklahoma team that ranks among the top six in both return categories, having brought back a punt and a kick for scores.
"When we lost [Lo] Wood and we lost Jamoris Slaughter and had to pencil in players full‑time on the defensive side of the ball, we lost some really good cover guys," Kelly said. "We're really thin there. And we're not going to be able to answer it until we get some reinforcement. This recruiting class should help us next year where we have depth in personnel.
"We're still one click behind in special teams with the depth of the personnel that we need. And that's just the fact. We're playing some young guys there that have to get better. But I like where we're going to go. I think our punt return is going to be really good. I think we're going to have some guys that we'll be able to get on that team."
True freshman Davonte Neal has all 12 of the Irish's punt returns, never turning the ball over but netting just 34 yards.
"We're fielding the ball much better than we did last year," Kelly said. "We need to go north and south."
The kick return unit has not been as explosive as it was last year, when George Atkinson III burst onto the scene as a true freshman with a pair of touchdowns.
Atkinson averages 19.4 yards on eight returns, and the Irish are 93rd nationally (19.2).
"We are who we are right now," Kelly said. "We're clearly disappointed. We have to do a better job. We have to give George Atkinson more room. We've got to do a better job. And we can. We just have to be better at that area right now."