In the midst of winter conditioning and now just a week away from its first spring practice, the Notre Dame football program faces scores of questions after the loss of NFL talent, dozens of long-time contributors, and immeasurable veteran leadership. Irish Illustrated examines the 12 most important questions to be answered over the spring, summer, and ultimately into the fall.
QUESTION #7 – BUILDING THE SPECIAL TEAMS
An epic Fiesta Bowl collapse in one crucial phase notwithstanding, Notre Dame’s special teams units turned from glaring weakness in 2014 (and ’13) to a collective strong suit last fall.
-- Rookie field goal kicker Justin Yoon made good on 15 of 17 field goal attempts including each of his final 12. And after a comedy of errors in the snap/hold battery in 2014, only one 2015 snap was botched. The unit scored a touchdown as well, Game 2 at Virginia (DeShone Kizer to Durham Smythe).
-- Rookie punter Tyler Newsome approached a quarter-century old program record with his 44.5 net average, one that included 21 boots of 50 yards or more, plus another 21 dropped inside opponents’ 20-yard line (vs. 8 touchbacks). Only one foe managed a punt return in excess of 20 yards, Ohio State for 29 yards in the Fiesta Bowl.
Most important, seven of 12 Irish opponents didn’t register a punt return of longer than seven yards.
-- Newsome augmented his punting efforts in the kickoff game, pinning teams on average at their own 21-yard line (four yards short of automatic touchback placement) on a whopping 84 kickoffs. Only three opponents dented the coverage unit with long returns: Clemson (44), Navy (58) and Boston College (67).
Once referred to as “a disaster” by head coach Brian Kelly following a particularly bad bowl outing (It was Pinstripe 2013 which explains why you don’t remember), the 2015 crew was the best of the Kelly era.
-- Notre Dame’s punt return team hit pay dirt on two occasions, once courtesy a blocked punt, scoop, and score vs. archrival USC, the other a 50-yard return by freshman C.J. Sanders. The former was the first at the program since 2010; the latter since 2009, pre-dating the Kelly era.
Additionally, both fake punts attempted vs. the group were stuffed.
-- Sanders and the Irish kick return unit also injected long-absent life into the program – a timely 93-yard sprint for a score at Stanford the most notable. The same unit thwarted four of five onside kick attempts against them over the course of the season.
But in an inexplicable turn of events, Notre Dame’s kickoff return unit directly contributed to defeat in the season’s final contest, failing five times in five chances to breach Ohio State’s 18-yard line – four times failing to get past the Buckeye’s 13-yard line.
Those diminishing returns are admittedly implausible, but a closer look illustrates a recurring culprit to that end.
ATTRITION EQUALS ABSENCE (OF DETAIL)
It shouldn’t come as a major surprise that an Irish coverage and/or return team disappointed in the season’s final outing. It happens every winter – or close to it.
-- 2015: The Fiesta Bowl Kick Return Debacle noted above
-- 2014: A 100-yard kickoff return allowed to LSU in the Music City Bowl
-- 2013: The aforementioned 2013 “disaster” included kickoff returns of 49 yards or greater in four of the season’s final five games including the Pinstripe Bowl.
-- 2012: Nothing out of the ordinary. The Irish sound coverage units were solid and the weak return teams weren’t worse as the season concluded.
-- 2011: A 77-yard kickoff return surrendered to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
With the exception of the Pinstripe Bowl, each set of bowl practices was treated with the upmost importance by the Irish coaching staff. (That is, they didn’t heavily prepare for the following season but instead focused on respective power foes FSU, Alabama, LSU, and OSU, respectively.)
Instead, injuries and suspensions often helped derail those best laid plans and the Irish kickoff return unit that took the field in the Fiesta Bowl on January 1 bore little resemblance to the group that started the season.
Kick Return Crew vs. Texas (13 used): Amir Carlisle (KRTorii Hunter, Matthias Farley, Greer Martini, Jarrett Grace, Tyler Luatua, KeiVarae Russell, Cole Luke, Drue Tranquill, James Onwualu, Devin Butler, Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Hounshell.
Kick Return Crew vs. Ohio State (13 used): C.J. Sanders (KR), Josh Adams, Farley, Martini, Hunter, Grace, Doug Randolph, Te’Von Coney, Nic Weishar, Chris Brown, Nicco Fertitta, Nicky, Baratti, walk-on Drew Recker.
In other words, due to injury or impact of injuries elsewhere, Notre Dame faced off against Ohio State – the nation’s second-best coverage team – with eight backups/alternate choices attempting to open holes for its dangerous kick returner.
Relevance? Backups forced into the late-season special teams fray are often those that haven’t earned consistent ST reps since spring ball, a time when about 80 percent of incoming freshmen aren’t yet on campus and one in which established players continue recover from off-season surgeries or nagging injuries.
No program can afford to go all-out on special teams in March, but Kelly and his staff have, over the last two springs, put a far greater emphasis on blocking and tackling during their special teams circuits than the staff did in its initial seasons in South Bend.
The Fiesta Bowl breakdown will doubtless elicit a similar approach this spring, and as with last season, special teams coach Scott Booker won’t be alone in his efforts.
IMPROVEMENT, TAKE 2
Gone from last year’s coverage and return teams are standouts Matthias Farley, KeiVarae Russell, and Jarrett Grace, plus regulars Chase Hounshell and Tyler Luatua.
Booker noted during Spring Ball 2015 that the team had identified a “Core Four” of Farley, Onwualu, Grace, and Prosise, but it was immediately broken up when Prosise was forced into a starting running back role following Tarean Folston’s season-opening injury. Among them, only Onwualu returns for 2016.
How can the unit improve under Booker’s tutelage for a second straight season? Enter new Special Teams Analyst Marty Biagi, late of South Dakota State as cornerbacks coach and previously at Southern University where he served as special teams and cornerbacks coach.
(It’s notable that last season’s sound specialty units were aided by the efforts of first-year special teams analyst/intern, Pryce Tracy. Tracy remains on staff in a soon-to-be announced capacity.)
As researched by our Pete Sampson in a February article, Biagi’s final season (2014) at Southern included four kickoff return touchdowns, two punt return touchdowns and a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, plus five blocked kicks.
As illustrated by the Fiesta Bowl breakdown, Booker, Biagi, and Kelly et al will begin the spring in search of not only an elite group of starters but necessary, viable depth among each specialty unit as well.
After the most successful overall special teams campaign at the program since 2002, which Irish competitors will emerge as the squad’s Core Four (and more) by next August? And who among them will emerge because of his efforts in spring ball?