Much like the offensive line, special teams tend to garner more attention with a negative play — a muffed punt, allowing a huge return, missing a field goal… — than the routine and often taken for granted solid performance.
Hired in 2017 after a miserable 2016 in which special teams snafus helped aid five defeats during Notre Dame’s 4-8 campaign, Brian Polian’s crew has lacked the spectacular but been consistently steady the past several years.
During the 2016 fiasco, Notre Dame placed 81st nationally in special teams efficiency in the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) used by Football Outsiders. Among the factors weighting heavily into this rating are the average field position starting point that is wrought mainly through the kicking game.
In Polian’s first year (2017) the Fighting Irish were still a not-good-enough 61st, but in each of the last three they have ranked among the top 30. Last year it was 29th, and 14th among teams that played at least 10 games. Each of the top six teams in this category played seven or fewer games.
In 2021, Notre Dame special teams possess a veteran nucleus that has a chance to rate among the best in Polian’s five years.
Punting, Kicking, Snapping
It begins with third-year starters Jay Bramblett and Jonathan Doerer at punter and kicker, respectively, and returning walk-on senior long-snapper Michael Vinson.
Bramblett met Polian’s goal — and then some — of 40 net yards punting (which has return yardage factored in) with a 41.28 average that finished 18th nationally. With a combination of hang time distance and coverage, the Irish allowed only 61 yards in returns in 2019, and 44 in 2020. Twenty of those yards came in the Rose Bowl on one punt in which Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith took advantage of a boot that out-kicked the coverage.
While Bramblett could still add some pop to his leg to flip the field, Polian reiterates that a seemingly pretty 58-yard punt down the middle for a 25-yard return is a poor punt.
“That was the battle that was fought with (2015-18 starter) Tyler Newsome for a year or two,” Polian said. “[Bramblett] did a very good job, but the next step in progression is to be more consistent in mechanics, turning the ball over and making sure we don’t have that 36-yard punt. Even our misses have to be good.”
After last year’s double-overtime victory over Clemson in which Doerer converted four field goals and made several clutch boots with the game on the line, he was on pace to set the Notre Dame career record in accuracy.
At that point he was 29 of 35 for a remarkable .829 percentage. However, he ended the season in a 4 of 9 funk. Doerer opted to exercise his fifth year option to return in 2021 with the expectation to regain his earlier form.
“There were some mechanical issues he couldn’t get comfortable with, and then it became a confidence thing,” Polian said.
Mentally, Doerer began to overthink it where instead of using his typical full range of motion, he tried to ease his kicks through the uprights.
“Jon was really affected by the loss of spring [because of the pandemic] and part of summer last year,” Polian said. “Physically, he didn’t feel like the year before… We have to battle through. I expect great things from Jon. I’m glad he’s back… we know he can do it on the big stage.”
Despite signing the nation’s No. 1-ranked long-snapper last year in Alex Peitsch, then junior walk-on Vinson earned the starting role. Polian is used to such success stories, having coached 2005-07 walk-on snapper J.J. Jansen — who is now in his 13th season with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
“One of the hardest working football players I’ve ever been around my entire career,” said Polian of Vinson, who was invited as a freshman to be a potential backup in case of an emergency. “…Michael beat [Peitsch] out fair and square.”
Every year a group of six to eight players are mainstays on three or even all four of the special teams units: kick and punt return, and kick and punt coverage.
Other than linebacker Jack Lamb, now a graduate transfer at Colorado, and graduated tight end Brock Wright, special teams returns most of its mainstays that will be led by linebackers Isaiah Pryor, Bo Bauer and Marist Liufau, plus senior safety Houston Griffith.
Another linebacker expected to take on an expanded in place of Lamb is junior J.D. Bertrand.
Once 6-1, 215-pound running back Audric Estime enrolls this summer, Polian wants to find a role for him, along with several others.
“To have a running back body that size, he can be a four-unit special teams player,” Polian said. “We’ve got to get Ramon Henderson going, we’ve got to get Clarence Lewis going. I’m really pleased with the camp K.J. Wallace has had so far. I am very pleased with [early entrants] Justin Walters and Phillip Riley. They are fast risers right now in all the work we’re doing.”
Two receivers, sophomore Jay Brunelle and early entrant Lorenzo Styles Jr., are also expected to get into the mix, the latter in the return game.
Next to extra points, perhaps nothing in special teams is more taken for granted than the kick and punt coverage units. Last year there were only four teams we found that placed in the top 20 in both categories, and in 2020 we found only six that were among the top 25 in both.
In both years, Notre Dame was among them. With what is returning, that consistency is expected to continue, if not improve.
While the coverage units have excelled, the return game has remained relatively dormant, finishing 48th last year in kick returns (21.39 yards) and 42nd in punt returns (9.14 aided by two blocked punts for long returns).
As anticipated last year, freshman speedster Chris Tyree took over as the starter on kick returns. On his first career attempt he nearly broke it for a touchdown before getting stopped after a 38-yard return. Thereafter, his final 21 returns averaged 19.9 yards — with the last one eight yards versus Alabama that nearly resulted in a lost fumble on the opening kickoff inside his own 10-yard line.
In the tape review of last season, Polian saw two “home run” opportunities missed on wrong reads.
“That is the one phase I’ve got to get figured out,” Polian said. “What do I need to do as a coach better to put our guys in more advantageous scenarios here? That’s been something we’ve studied hard here the off-season because we do feel like we have an electric return man.”
As for punt returns, Polian makes no apologies about the conservative nature there of first and foremost securing the ball. Current senior walk-on receiver Matt Salerno was the safe option in the final nine games, and his 10 returns totaled 45 yards.
“There’s a lot of chatter out there about that: Why can’t we just put Chris Tyree back there to catch a punt,’” Polian said. “I don’t think people understand how difficult it is to catch a punt and how specialized a skill that is.
“The security of the football and the transition of it from our defense to our offense is the single most important factor. If Chris is not yet comfortable — and there are times he articulates to us ‘I’m not quite there yet,’ – I’m not going to roll him out there on national TV if he’s not comfortable yet.”
Look for more on punt return logistics and rules in an upcoming feature.
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