Notre Dame's Fighting Irish made sure the first game in Charles Fant's head coaching career was special. More precisely, their special teams made sure it was special.
Beginning with Nick Chambers' return of the opening kickoff for a touchdown, Notre Dame rolled to a 52-13 victory over Grace Academy at Notre Dame on Friday night.
Chambers, a senior who hadn't played football since ninth grade, choosing instead to concentrate on baseball, was expecting to be a blocker on the kickoff. Lined up way in front of deep backs Josh Deocampo and Auston Banks, the ball ended up bounding his way; 69 yards and 14 seconds later, it was 6-0.
"I was expecting them to kick it deep to Deo or Auston Banks," Chambers said. "Next thing I know the ball is coming to me. When it first hit my hands, I missed it and thought, 'Oh, God.' When I picked it up I saw a guy coming at me. I made a move on him and then just took off running. And I wasn't going to stop.
"Like Coach Fant said, that's something he'll always remember. His first play as a head coach went for a touchdown. Not many coaches can say that."
Fant said injuries were a concern for his team coming in, and it didn't help that five Irish had to leave Friday's game with injuries. He said he expected good things from freshman kicker Alex Darras, who was 7-for-7 on extra points, made a 25-yard field goal and put three of his kickoffs in the end zone, but was surprised by how well his returners performed.
In addition to the first touchdown coming in the kicking game, the Irish got an 83-yard kickoff return and a 70-yard punt return from Banks -- both for scores -- and a 44-yard punt return by Jared Andrews before he left the game with a separated shoulder.
"We've worked so hard, knowing special teams are important," Fant said. "But our return game, I didn't expect that."
Another of the Irish injured players was starting quarterback Tanner Webb, who sprained an ankle with 2:59 to go in the first quarter and did not return. Darras took over the offense from there and ended up throwing two touchdown passes, each covering 21 yards.
Banks, who led the Irish with 67 yards on 10 carries, had a 15-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Freshman Ricky Ballard capped the scoring with an 8-yard burst with 1:59 to play.
Will Slack led the Golden Eagles with 131 yards rushing on 17 carries. One covered 58 yards early in the game, but he fumbled at the end of it. Quarterback Josh Smith did not have a carry in the first quarter but ended up with 129 yards on 18 runs. He scored from 54 yards on an option keeper and also threw 68 yards to Drew Shumaker.
"We've got some things to work on," Chambers said. "We've got to stay humble. This is only one game. We've got nine left."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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