A true freshman kicker, a rookie punter, a true freshman kick and punt returner plus a rookie holder.
The collection above rarely represents a recipe for successful, team-wide specialty units, but it’s the reality that faced Notre Dame entering the 2015 season.
But add to those youngsters a pair of dedicated fifth-year seniors, a five-star sophomore linebacker, a sampling of freshmen and veterans – starters and backups alike – and the end product was the best collective special teams effort of the Brian Kelly era and arguably for any Irish team since the 2002 campaign.
“Special Teams are just as important as everything else,” said team captain Matthias Farley at the tail end of August camp. “If guys aren’t locked in or guys aren’t prepared, you can lose a lot of hidden yardage or have a game-changing play. It’s very important for older guys to play special teams. They have the experience and will really get after it.”
Named the squad’s Special Teams Player of the Year three months later, Farley’s words proved prescient, as classmate Jarrett Grace joined him weekly on the Irish run teams. By season’s end, so too did fellow captains Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith, with starters such as Elijah Shumate, Max Redfield, Cole Luke, and James Onwualu playing key roles throughout.
Add to that mix Greer Martini, Amir Carlisle (a touchdown) and Torii Hunter, Jr., plus backups Nyles Morgan (a forced fumble), Devin Butler (a fumble recovery), and Nicky Baratti, as well as freshmen Equanimeous St. Brown (a blocked punt), Nicco Fertitta, and Nick Coleman, and special teams coach Scott Booker concocted an impressive mix of young and old competitors alike.
And oh yeah, the aforementioned rookies in lead roles exceeded expectations.
Redshirt-Freshman P Tyler Newsome: 49 punts and a 44.0-yard net average, good for 24th nationally. Newsome executed 18 boots in excess of 50 yards (Kyle Brindza had just 12 such offerings last season) and had 20 punts downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
Freshman PK Justin Yoon: Has connected on 12 consecutive after Yoon and his snapper/holder battery combined to miss two of the season’s first five field goal attempts. Yoon likewise corrected an early-season issue on PATs (misses in Game #3 and #4) and finished 46 of 48 in that regard.
Freshman Returner C.J. Sanders: Did the bulk of the heavy lifting for a punt return unit that averaged 8.0 per return including a 50-yard touchdown, the first at the program since 2009. (He added returns of 30 and 25 yards as well.)
The Irish punt return team also blocked a punt for a score for the first time since 2010.
Sanders starred as a kick returner, averaging 25 yards per attempt including a lighting strike 93-yard touchdown at Stanford to get the Irish on the board. Sanders added a 44-yarder at Clemson.
New S/H Battery Scott Daly and DeShone Kizer: No dropped snaps, no sailed snaps. In the wake of the shamockery that was the 2014 snapper/holder battery, the 2015 effort is worthy of mention.
Punt Return Defense: Allowed just 6.72 yards per return with a season-long of just 18 yards (Ga. Tech). Seven of 12 foes faced didn’t register a return longer than 7 yards.
Kick Return Defense: A two-year pock mark against the specialty units, the 2015 version was far more consistent, yielding game highs of 24, 16, 21, 28, 19, 24, 20, and 26 yards in eight of 12 contests while surrendering large gains vs. Clemson (44 yards), Navy (58), USC (33, Adoree Jackson), and Boston College (67).
The unit surrendered a respectable 21.73 yards per attempt despite a whopping 55 kicks to cover (good offenses kickoff a lot).
Onside Kicks Against: Five attempted, four recovered by the Irish (Torii Hunter, Jr., Te’Von Coney, and Matthias Farley, twice).
Fake Punts Against: Two attempted, both snuffed by the Irish, first the combination of Greer Martini and Jarrett Grace against UMass, then by Matthias Farley against Boston College.
Tricks and Turnovers: A fake field goal touchdown pass by holder DeShone Kizer to Durham Smythe at Virginia. It covered seven yards and marked the first touchdown pass and reception, respectively, of their careers. Remarkably, Smythe’s score was the only registered by an Irish tight end in 2015.
The Irish coverage units forced three fumbles (Nyles Morgan, Nicco Fertitta, and “team”) recovering two (Devin Butler, Scott Daly). The lone turnover suffered on special teams in 2015 proved costly, as C.J. Sanders third quarter cough-up at Clemson led to the Tigers only touchdown of the second stanza.
“Absolutely there is (an increased emphasis),” Farley promised of the specialty units in August. “It came from everybody. The coaches harp on it every year but it’s the first time that everybody has really bought into it 100 percent. I think holistically, everybody has bought into it more than any year before.”