Notre Dame Special Teams In The Groundwork Stage Of Identity

Lou Somogyi, Senior Editor
Blue and Gold
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Photo by Joe Raymond

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In many ways, first-year Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian feels like a head coach again like he did at Nevada (2013-16). That’s because in his current role he needs to know and assess every player on the roster to evaluate who can best aid the coverage and return teams.

On the other hand, his job is so much easier because from a position standpoint he is responsible for only about a half-dozen specialists at kicker, punter and long-snapper.

“When a guy misses a class when you’re the head coach … you’re in charge of 105 (players),” Polian said with a chuckle. “Now, I’ve got the six specialists — and they don’t miss class.”

After a fine campaign in 2015, Notre Dame special teams imploded way too often in 2016. Polian said his first charge in his role is not so much about special teams winning games as it is first not to lose them. During the spring, it’s also to find a base lineup that can be installed once training camp begins in August.

“I really don’t care about scheme right now,” said Polian this week after Notre Dame’s sixth practice. “It’s about teaching the fundamentals, it’s about creating a culture, it’s about identifying personnel.

“My experience as a head coach taught me that. Years ago I would be ‘How much can we get in in the spring?’ The reality of it is for the kicking game it’s not about how much you can get in. It’s like OTAs (Organized Team Activities) in pro football. We’re teaching the basics, trying to find where the guys fit in the puzzle.”

Here are at least five storylines so far for Polian’s crew:


1. Receivers, Tight Ends and Running Backs Are Figuring Prominently Into Lineup.

Usually when one mentions running backs on special teams, the automatic thought is as return men.

Not in this case this spring at Notre Dame. Among the mainstays who could play on all four units — kick coverage, punt coverage, kick return and punt return — especially in tackling roles, are a myriad of skill players on offense.

Tony Jones and Dex [Williams] are going to be on the coverage units, and they have shown thus far that physically they can do what we want them to do,” said Polian of the top reserve backs.

Among the receivers, 6-4 3/8, 224-pound sophomore Chase Claypool was a standout last year (11 tackles, with seven solo), while junior Miles Boykin (6-4, 225) and sophomore Javon McKinley (6-2, 220) also could have linebacker/safety roles in the kicking game with their physicality and speed.

“McKinley especially — I didn’t know much about him,” Polian said. “He’s a strong dude and he’s over 215 pounds. His strength numbers are good. He’s got to help us on special teams because we’re not as deep as you want to be at some other spots. Where we are going to make up has to come from offense.”

Senior tight ends such as Nic Weishar (6-4 ¾, 242) and Tyler Luatua (6-3 3/8, 260) could provide physicality as blockers who can get down the field in the return game.

Safeties Jalen Elliott and Nicco Fertitta, or linebackers Te’von Coney and Greer Martini, among others, could continue to be in the mix, but the size and speed of the skill players on offense are an appealing option to Polian.

In his previous stint at Notre Dame from 2005-09, Polian’s mainstay was 5-10, 180-pound walk-on Mike Annello, one of the school's all-time demons as a gunner or on coverage. Polian is always keeping a watchful eye on someone who mirrors such moxie and production.

“Who’s going to be the guy where his main contribution to the team is through the kicking game?” Polian noted.

Among the prospects could be senior wideout Austin Webster (5-11 ¼, 191) — the first Notre Dame captain elected in the modern era who is not on scholarship — junior walk-on safety/linebacker Robert Regan (6-2 3/8, 203 pounds, who has also worked as an option quarterback for the scout team), or walk-on junior linebacker Kier Murphy (6-1, ¾, 225), who also is a long-snapper candidate.


2. Many Happy Returns

Junior CJ Sanders already has four touchdown returns in his career (three on kickoffs), two short of the school record held by luminaries such as Tim Brown, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail and Allen Rossum.

Consistency/decision making at fielding punts has sometimes been an issue with Sanders, so three others vying for the role include juniors Chris Finke (whose 23-yard punt return set up the game-winning score against Miami) and Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Kevin Stepherson.

The Irish were slated to begin installing on kick return for the Friday, March 31 practice.


3. Kicking Nucleus

The five main specialists working with Polian this spring begin with junior kicker Justin Yoon and senior punter Tyler Newsome.

Yoon has converted 28 of his 34-career field-goal attempts (.824 percentage), but foot fatigue has sidelined him this spring. That’s part of the reason why Polian personally recruited Charlotte, N.C. native Jonathan Doerer to at least handle kickoffs, and potentially right away this fall.

He is monitoring Newsome the same way, especially because of the senior’s “Type-A” personality.

“If you don’t rein him in he’ll kick 100 [footballs] and then the next day he can’t understand why his quad is sore,” Polian said. “We’ve had to keep him very structured. My focus has been let’s tighten up the punting here this spring. We have not kicked the ball off the tee yet.”

The one new specialist this spring is sophomore long-snapper John Shannon, who succeeds four-year starter Scott Daly (2013-16), who in turn followed four-year starter Jordan Cowart (2009-12).

Contingency options in case of an injury to Shannon could be the aforementioned Murphy or even tight end Weishar.

Working as the backup for Yoon this spring is walk-on senior Sam Kohler, who Polian described as a "pleasant surprise" in their first work together indoors, which often is not a good gauge compared to dealing with the outdoor elements. Left-footed junior Jeff Riney is the next option behind Newsome.


4. Consistency Concentration

While Newsome’s powerful leg routinely results in many prodigious 50-plus yard punts (36 his first two seasons) and makes him a bona fide NFL prospect, he’s also had too many mis-hits for Polian’s liking.

Furthermore, one of the most overrated stats in football can be punting average. For example, last year Newsome was 26th nationally in punting yards with a 43.5 average — but as a team Notre Dame was 106th in net punting with a 35.28 figure (after punt returns or blocks).

“Our single biggest goal with Tyler is consistency,” Polian said. “Everybody wants to look at how far does your punter kick the ball. That does not matter. I could not care less.

“Net punt is the only thing that matters, and we want to be 39 yards or more net punt (33 of 128 FBS teams averaged at least 39 net yards last year). So if he kicks a 42-yard hanging ball that is fair caught, that is a win. That’s what I’m trying to get him to understand: 42- and 43-yard fair catches are winning kicks. We don’t want 50-yard line drives. Those are hard to cover.”

The same applies to kickoff efficiency.

“If you’re going to hit a line drive, it better be a touchback,” Polian said. “If it’s a line drive and they’re catching it at the two, that’s hard to cover.

“We cannot have kickoffs landing on the 7-yard line in neutral conditions. There are some days here where the wind blows, we all know that. But in neutral conditions, we cannot have the ball landing on the seven- or eight-yard line in major college football.”


5. Situational Special Teams

At least once per week during the season, aspects such as fake punts, fake kicks, onside kicks, etc., are worked on, both offensively and defensively.

“It may show up only once or twice a year but you have to be prepared,” Polian said. “That’s critical efficiency. [New England Patriots head coach] Bill Belichick says, ‘Situational football defines us.’ ”

"We touch on them every week — not everything [because of limited time] — but you constantly go through every situation so that it stays fresh. That’s part of the script every week.”

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