The term “special teams” covers a lot of ground and a lot of requisite skills.
Punt coverage and return, kick coverage and return, and all the various nuances that are encompassed within the broad-ranging term “special teams” provide plenty of opportunities for mistakes.
Remember when Notre Dame fair caught all its punts? Remember when Notre Dame couldn’t get the simple hold of the football down for extra points? Remember when punt and kick returners traipsed through the Irish coverage units?
Some of these issues remain today, of course, which often overshadow near perfection by kickers (David Ruffer 2010, Justin Yoon 2015), school-record-tying kick returns for scores (George Atkinson 2011) or the record-setting pace of a current punter (Tyler Newsome).
We remember the flubs, and more often than not during the six-and-a-half-year tenure of Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, those “catastrophic” mistakes that cost the Irish games, including three of the four losses this season.
• In an eight-point loss to Michigan State in the third week of the season, a holding penalty on the opening kickoff negated a 100-yard return by C.J. Sanders. A punt that bounced off the leg of Miles Boykin was recovered by the Spartans, which launched a 36-0 run by the visitors. The Irish gave up an easy two-point conversion and picked up an unsportsmanlike penalty on a well-covered punt.
• In a three-point loss to Duke, the Irish surrendered a 96-yard kick return and missed a 42-yard field goal, crucial plays that went against Notre Dame for the second straight loss at home.
• In a seven-point loss to N.C. State this past weekend, the Irish found themselves caught between two punting styles. A blocked punt that was set up for a rugby-style kick turned into a 16-yard touchdown return and the winning margin.
Even in the victory over Nevada, the Irish missed an extra point and had too many men on the field for a punt. In the win over Syracuse, the Irish allowed a 74-yard punt return that set up a touchdown before halftime in which four players missed tackles.
“I want to eradicate the big plays we’re giving up,” Kelly said. “We’ve had dynamic plays from a special teams standpoint. Our coverage teams have been really good, other than the few mistakes we’ve made, which are catastrophic. We have to eradicate the big plays we’re giving up on special teams.”
Charged with coordinating the entire effort is Scott Booker, who also coaches the tight ends. Notre Dame’s special teams in 2015 were very solid under his guidance.
Justin Yoon had a brilliant rookie season, nailing 15-of-17 field goal attempts, including each of his last 12. Newsome began the season with the best all-time punting average among Irish players who have attempted at least 50 punts. Freshman C.J. Sanders provided a spark as both a punt and kick returner. Coverage units weren’t great, but Newsome’s distance compensated for much of that, both on punts and kickoffs.
And yet such strong performances are forgotten when you lose by more than two touchdowns in a bowl game against Ohio State and none of the six kickoff returns reach the Irish 20-yard line. The catastrophes have hit even harder.
Kelly has added to the amount of time spent on special teams this season.
“I’ve changed up when we run our special teams (in practice),” Kelly said. “We take more teaching time now in pre-practice. We put all of our offensive players in a tackling circuit.
“So we’re doing a lot of things I’ve never done to better teach and coach that group. We’re on it every single day in terms of looking at how to be better.”
The inclusion of special teams analyst Marty Biagi – a former punter and kicker at Marshall – has helped lessen the burden on Booker and the rest of the coaching staff, all of whom play a role. Each assistant coach has a “collateral responsibility” on the special teams units.
“Marty is a special teams coach,” Kelly said. “He’s skilled in the area of kickers, punters, long-snappers and has a great sense of the special teams game.
“I wanted somebody off the field that could really study that realm, making sure there are no flaws within what we’re doing and also keeping an eye on how we can better advance ourselves.”
The most recent breakdown – the blocked punt against N.C. State – appeared to have the Irish caught between two styles of play. The Irish used two- and three-man blocking walls for Newsome with some rugby-style kicks sprinkled in for a bad weather situation. It ultimately backfired on the Irish.
“Those are points of emphasis that we have to do a better job on,” Kelly said. “Points of emphasis like it’s not just enough to yell and scream when the ball hits the ground on a punt. You’ve got to be running up there and pointing.
“Same thing with our two-man wall. Our guys did a pretty good job. They didn’t get dented. We might have been a half-yard too tight, but if you’ve got a 6-foot-7 guy (blocking the punt), you should probably kick it right over his head. That’s a point of emphasis we have to make to our kicker.”
Kelly admitted that there’s never quite enough time to devote to special teams on the practice field. But it’s the same amount of time that other programs are allotted, and more often than not, it’s the mistakes that stand out and, ultimately, contribute to Notre Dame’s demise.