Calamity in 2016 elicited off-season change – enter former Nevada head coach and ex-Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian.
Seven football seasons removed from his previous stint in South Bend under Charlie Weis, Polian’s units are blessed by the return of junior kicker Justin Yoon, senior punter Tyler Newsome, and junior return man C.J. Sanders.
Each of them flashed star potential in the past, but each likewise stumbled at a crucial point last fall as Notre Dame’s special teams crashed, burned, and had its ashes ingloriously scattered over the wreckage left behind.
Junior C.J. Sanders ranks among the nation’s best kick returners and he and classmate Chris Finke offer great promise under punts. Fellow junior Justin Yoon has connected on 28 of his 34 career field goal attempts while senior punter Tyler Newsome enters his penultimate season of eligibility among the nation’s top pro prospects at his position.
Newsome enters his senior season with a 43.9-yard net average on 109 punts. Notre Dame’s all-time record belongs to “Million Dollar Punter” Craig Hentrich who punted at 44.1 per pop in 118 opportunities (1989-92)
Talent at key positions abounds, and unlike last season, the need for a preponderance of freshmen on the Irish “Run Teams” can be avoided.
A culture change among the units has begun in earnest.
2016 was the downside.
- A blocked field goal allowed in an overtime loss at Texas
- A muffed punt that led to a touchdown in an 8-point loss to Michigan State coupled with a hold that negated a Notre Dame kickoff return touchdown at the outset of the contest.
- A kickoff return touchdown allowed in a four-point loss to Duke.
- A 74-yard punt return allowed that set up a half-ending touchdown (making the score 33-27 Irish) in a win over Syracuse.
- A blocked punt allowed for a score – the game’s only touchdown – in a loss at North Carolina State.
- A muffed punt that directly resulted in a Miami touchdown in a 30-27 Irish win.
- Both a kickoff and punt return touchdown allowed at USC in a 21-point loss.
Special Teams Options
Redshirt-freshman John Shannon takes over the long-snapping duties held since the outset of 2013 by Scott Daly and senior holder Montgomery VanGorder returns as well.
Said Polian of his spring plan of improvement:
“I have to look back at last year’s film and we have to be honest and critical about the things that we can do better but without – I can’t be ranting and raving. I have to be matter-of-fact and offer the things I can identify simply off tape that we can improve upon, and really the focus in the spring is going to be fundamental football and identifying personnel.
“Obviously every year there are going to be a couple of freshmen that are going to help you but we have to identify the core special teams players in this program now.”
The first name uttered by Polian thereafter? Chase Claypool. He then offered, “Chase Claypool and who else? Nicco Fertitta (as an example). Who are going to be the core special teams players for us? I want to go find the next Mike Anello. Casey Cullen. Who are going to be those guys that we know we can count on for three or four units?
“David Bruton’s turned it into a heck of a career chasing punts and kickoffs. Who is going to be that next crop of guys that are absolutely take pride in what we’re doing?”
Claypool, Fertitta, Ashton White, Dexter Williams, Julian Love, and Jamir Jones return from solid coverage performances last fall. Claypool led last year’s squad with 10 tackles while covering punts and kicks.
They’ll be better.
Absent four game day hurricanes, two tornadoes, three snowstorms, injuries to Yoon, Newsome, Sanders, Finke, and Shannon, Notre Dame’s specialty units will outperform its 2016 predecessors.
But can they become part of the reason Notre Dame wins games?
Every college football program is approximately 30 bodies short of its August Camp total during the spring. As such, we’ll know little about these units at the conclusion of spring ball because live tackling sessions will be few and far between in terms of first string players.
Polian, however, will finish the 15-practice session with most of his key pieces in place.