First Rate: Special Teams

Just four teams among Notre Dame and its 12 opponents return the kicker, punter, top kick returner and top punt returner – N.C. State, Notre Dame, Miami and Nevada.

There are so many facets to special teams that it probably would make more sense to break it down into two or three categories – 1) kicking/punting, 2) kick/punt returns and 3) kick/punt coverage.

But for the purpose of keeping our First-Rate series tidy, we put it into one, all-encompassing category, and that makes it more difficult to come up with one rating for all the combined facets.

Notre Dame, Stanford, N.C. State, Miami, Virginia Tech, Nevada, Michigan State and Syracuse return their kickers. Of that group, only Notre Dame, N.C. State, Miami, Michigan State and Nevada return the punter as well.

You will see references below to “cumulative return/coverage” units, which is a tally of rankings on punt returns, kickoff returns, punt coverage and kickoff coverage. Among the 13 teams, the top five in these categories combined last year were: 1) N.C. State, 2) Duke, 3) Virginia Tech, 4) Stanford and 5) Syracuse. Notre Dame was ninth. USC was 11th. Michigan State was last.

13) Navy (P-Alex Barta, KR-Dishan Romine) -- When you think Navy, you think discipline, which should show up on special teams. But that was not the case last year as the Midshipmen ranked last among ’16 Irish opponents in cumulative return/coverage units while rating 97th-of-lower nationally in three of the four categories. Barta returns with a 41.6-yard punting average, but a woeful 33.9-yard net. K-Austin Grebe (12-of-14 FG, including a 40-yarder vs. Notre Dame) must be replaced along with PR-DeBrandon Sanders.

12) Army (KR-Marcus Hyatt, PR-Edgar Poe) – Army’s career leader in extra points, Daniel Grochowski, is gone. He only attempted nine FG last year, making six, although one was a 47-yarder. Army was outstanding in ’15 on both coverage units, but anemic in the return game. Hyatt average just 19.8 yards per KR while Poe had a 50-yard PR, but averaged just 3.1 yards on his other 17 PR.

11) Texas (P-Michael Dickson, KR-Kris Boyd) – It was a hit-and-miss year special teams-wise for the Longhorns in ’15 who were very good on both sides of the PR equation and very poor on both aspects of KR. Dickson is the lone returning starter among the four specialists/returners with a very good 39.3-yard net on punts. Boyd, with nine returns and a 20.5-yard average, replaces multi-return specialist Daje Johnson on KR.

10) USC (KR/PR-Adoree Jackson) – Jackson is a weapon, particularly on PR, with a pair of touchdowns and a 10.5-yard average. Gone are K Alex Wood (13-of-17 FG) and P Kris Albarado (41.0-yard average). Left-footed Matt Boermeester takes over at kicker with Chris Tilbey, an Australian football player new to the American game, handling punting chores.

9) Michigan State (K-Michael Geiger, P-Jake Hartbarger, KR-R.J. Shelton) – The Spartans put up a host of conflicting numbers last year. Geiger will be remembered for his game-winning FG against Ohio State, but he was just 12-of-19 for the season with four misses on 12 attempts inside 40 yards. Hartbarger averaged 42.7 yards per punt, but the coverage unit (and perhaps his hang time) resulted in a poor 35.1-yard net. Shelton averaged just 21.8 yards per return as the Spartans ranked 115th in punt coverage and 121st in PR.  

8) Syracuse (K-Cole Murphy, KR/PR-Brisly Estime) – After serving as kickoff man as a freshman, Murphy took over placekicks in ’15 and converted 16-of-22 FG, although he was just 3-of-7 from beyond 39 yards. Third-team all-ACC punt returner Estime is back after a spectacular season (18.1-yard average and two TDs). Red-shirt freshman Sterling Hofrichter must replace the spectacular P-Riley Dixon, who averaged an impressive 40.1 yards net.

7) Nevada (K-Brent Zuzo, P-Alex Boy, KR-Elijah Mitchell, PR-Andrew Celis) – A veteran crew of kicking/return specialist returns for HC Brian Polian, Notre Dame’s former special teams coordinator. Zuzo was a perfect 17-of-17 on FG inside 50 yards and Boy is a career 43-yard punter. Both are seniors. Mitchell averaged an outstanding 26.4 yards per KR with a TD while Celis averaged 13.8 yards on 11 PR. Glaring weakness: a No. 113 finish in punt coverage and No. 118 in kickoff coverage.

6) Duke (KR-DeVon Edwards, PR-Ryan Smith) – There is no more dangerous return man on Notre Dame’s schedule than Edwards, who had three KR for touchdowns last season and has six in his career. Smith (7.1-yard average) is solid as the PR. Overall, Duke was No. 2 among Irish opponents in cumulative return/coverage. But there’s a huge gap at kicker and punter with the departures of K-Ross Martin (26-of-30 FG in ’15) and P-Will Monday (43.5-yard average). A red-shirt freshman (Austin Parker) and true freshman (A.J. Reed) take over at punter and kicker.

5) Miami (K-Michael Badgley, P-Justin Vogel, KR-Mark Walton, PR-Corn Elder) – Badgley was busy last year, converting 25-of-30 FG attempts while coming up huge in wins over Nebraska, Duke, Virginia and Pittsburgh. Vogel was a solid 42.5 yards per punt. Elder is a weapon with PR for scores, two of which were called back. The Hurricanes were among the nation’s worst in PR coverage and KR with Walton averaging just 17.6 yards per attempt with a long of 32 (on 17 returns).

4) Notre Dame (K-Justin Yoon, P-Tyler Newsome, KR/PR-C.J. Sanders) – Yoon and Newsome were brilliant in their Notre Dame debut seasons. Yoon made three of his first five FG attempts, and then converted each of his last 12. Newsome was a cannon with a 44.5-yard average. Of his 55 punts, 21 exceeded 50 yards and 21 landed inside the 20. Despite a PR for a TD against UMass and a KR for a score vs. Stanford, Sanders and the Irish return games were below-average. Excluding the TDs, Sanders averaged just 20.2 yards per KR and 5.5 per PR.

3) Virginia Tech (K-Joey Slye, KR-Der’Woun Greene, PR-Greg Stroman) – Veteran ST coordinator James Shibest came to Blacksburg with HC Justin Fuente, and they have plenty upon which to build in the tradition of Frank Beamer. The Hokies had the third best cumulative return/coverage units among teams on Notre Dame’s ’16 schedule. Slye was 23-of-27 on FGs from less than 50 yards, but Virginia Tech must replace A.J. Hughes (42.9-yard average) at punter. Stroman is considered a lethal weapon at PR while Green averaged an impressive 27.4 yards per KR.

2) N.C. State (K-Kyle Bambard, P-A.J. Cole, KR-Nyheim Hines, PR-Bra’Lon Cherry) – The only piece missing from the Wolfpack’s special teams arsenal is a competent kicker, and that could be Division II graduate transfer Connor Haskins, who surpassed Bambard (7-of-14 FG, 37 long) in the spring. The return game boasts a pair of weapons in Hines (26.3 KR, 1 TD of 100 yards) and Cherry (13.3 PR, 1 TD of 52 yards). N.C. State was No. 7 nationally in punt coverage and boasts the best combination of return/coverage among Notre Dame’s 12 opponents.

1) Stanford (K-Conrad Ukropina, KR/PR-Christian McCaffrey) – Not only did Ukropina nail a 45-yard field goal with 0:00 on the clock to ruin Notre Dame’s playoff bid, but he also made 18-of-20 on the season. McCaffrey is a weapon with a 28.9-yard KR average, an 8.7-yard PR average, and a TD for both units. Stanford was solid in ’15 in all return/coverage units. Only missing piece is loss of P-Alex Robinson, but his successor, Jake Bailey, has inside-the-20 experience.

1. USC (28 – QB 3rd, RB 2nd, WR 1st,  OL 1st, DL 7th, LB 3rd, DB 1st, ST 10th
2. Notre Dame (30– QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR 6th,  OL 2nd, DL 4th, LB 4th, DB 6th, ST 4th)
3. Stanford (31 – QB 5th, RB 1st, WR 11th, OL 4th, DL 3rd, LB 2nd, DB 4th, ST 1st)
4. Michigan St. (36 – QB 8th, RB 4th, WR 7th, OL 3rd, DL 2nd, LB 1st, DB 2nd, ST 9th)
5. N.C. State (46 – QB 10th, RB 6th, WR 4th, OL 10th, DL 1st, LB 5th, DB 8th, ST 2nd)
6. Virginia Tech (48 – QB 9th, RB 7th, WR 2nd, OL 7th, DL 6th, LB 11th, DB 3rd, ST 3rd)
7. Miami (53 – QB 2nd, RB 10th,  WR 9th, OL 8th, DL 5th, LB 7th, DB 7th, ST 5th)
8. Texas (55 – QB 4th, RB 5th, WR 10th, OL 6th, DL 8th, LB 6th, DB 5th, ST 11th)
9. Syracuse (67 – QB 6th, RB 11th,  WR 3rd , OL 11th, DL 11th, LB 8th, DB 9th, ST 8th)
10t. Duke (70 -- QB 11th, RB 9th, WR 8th, OL 5th, DL 9th, LB 12th, DB 10th, ST 6th)
10t. Nevada (70 – QB 7th, RB 8th, WR 5th, OL 9th, DL 10th, LB 13th, DB 11th, ST 7th)
12. Army (96– QB 12th, RB 13th, WR 13th, OL 12th, DL 12th, LB 9th, DB 13th, ST 12th)
13. Navy (98 – QB 13th, RB 12th, WR 12th, OL 13th, DL 13th, LB 10th, DB 12th, ST 13th)


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories