Brian Polian asked for a white board for his office at the Guglielmino Athletics complex where he could affix each Irish player’s name and shift around preferred personnel for Notre Dame’s return and coverage units.
Identifying each player by name on the field has been even trickier than finding core players for his units.
“The biggest challenge for me is learning all their names,” said Polian, a member of Charlie Weis’ Notre Dame staff from 2005-09 and the head coach at Nevada the past four seasons.
“Coach (Mike) Elko has to learn half the team. I’ve got to learn the whole team. Every day, I give somebody a ‘dab’ because I got their name right.”
With a heavy emphasis on fundamentals, changing the special teams culture/attitude and identifying core personnel for this fall, the Irish haven’t even addressed overall scheme as they crossed the one-third mark of spring drills.
“The biggest change has got to be the urgency with which we attack special teams, our execution and critical efficiency at important times of the game,” Polian said.
“The X’s and O’s part, there’s only so much you can do. We’re not really concerned about that right now. It’s about setting a tempo, reestablishing a culture and identifying personnel.”
It hasn’t taken Polian long to find a group of players he wants on Notre Dame’s return and coverage units.
Receiver Chase Claypool has picked up where he left off in 2016. Running back Dexter Williams and safety Jalen Elliott have jumped out. As impressive as Tony Jones Jr. has been at running back, so too has been his first impression on special teams. Big receivers Javon McKinley and Miles Boykin also have caught Polian’s eye.
“It’s not as though I looked at the tape and thought, ‘Boy, we need to change all this,’” Polian said. “ Coach (Kelly) knows what I believe in. We’re very much on the same page.
“For me, it’s learning our personnel and who can do what. My tempo is full speed and they’re getting used to me. Coach’s presence has really driven home the fact it’s really important and that we’re going to work really hard at it this spring.”
Polian said Kelly sits in on every special teams meeting, which adds a greater emphasis to the importance of their roles.
“I’ve enjoyed Coach Kelly’s presence and how active he’s been with us,” Polian said. “He’s in every kicking meeting. We keep the entire team (in play), short of the offensive linemen, defensive tackles, and quarterbacks. Everybody else is in the meeting, so they’re all hearing it.”
Polian has a plateful on his hands. Notre Dame ranked 96th in kick coverage and 123rd in punt coverage. Kickoff distance was 75th and touchbacks were 58th. Punt returns were 44th nationally. Only kick returns ranked among the nation’s top 30 (27th), thanks largely to C.J. Sanders’ two touchdowns.
The fact that Polian can focus strictly on special teams and not tight ends and safeties as he did at various times of his previous five-year stint with the Irish is a relief.
“Making that my first priority and making sure that’s handled has been a lot of fun,” Polian said. “There aren’t enough hours in the day (to do both), and I’m really enjoying the opportunity to be with them.”
Polian has seen rapid progress from punter Tyler Newsome and long-snapper John Shannon, who red-shirted as a freshman in ’16 and takes over for four-year snapper Scott Daly.
“I’ve seen a difference with Newsome and Shannon just with six practices,” Polian said. “We’ve got some things with Tyler straightened out that I think will make him better, and that’s because of my ability to give them individual attention and work on skills and techniques.”
For Newsome, it’s not about distance. He’s averaged 44.5 and 43.5 yards per punt in the last two seasons. It’s about the yards allowed after the catch and, in general, a repeated pattern of success.
“Our single biggest goal with Tyler is consistency,” Polian said. “Everybody wants to look at how far your punter kicks the ball. That does not matter. I couldn’t care less. Net punt is the only thing that matters, and we want to be 39 yards or more.
“If he kicks a 42-yard punt that is fair caught, that is an absolute win. That’s what I’m trying to get him to understand. We don’t want 50-yard, 4.3-second line drives. Those are hard to cover. We’re trying to get him to understand consistency and driving the ball up instead of out. It’s gotten better over two weeks.”
With Justin Yoon sidelined to give his leg all the rest it needs to be fresh this summer/fall, only senior walk-on Sam Kohler has attempted any placekicks, and Polian said he’s been pleasantly surprised.
Incoming freshman Jonathan Doerer is expected to compete for (and win) kickoff duties. The Irish will address kickoffs Friday – practice No. 8 – for the first time this spring.
Punt return candidates include Sanders, Chris Finke, Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson. Kick return prospects will be tested Friday as well as those vying for a spot on the various units.
“At some point, I’ll have a ‘gong show’ and say, ‘Who wants to get a look,’ and we’ll start firing balls at ‘em,” Polian said. “If you drop two, you’re fired. We’ll find another one or two guys out of the gong show.
“We’re doing that at long snapper. Can we find a second and third long-snapper? Kier Murphy, a walk-on linebacker, said he wanted to try snapping. So we worked with him and he did well.”
First and foremost, it’s about developing a mentality that carries over from Game 1 through Game 13.
“I haven’t concerned myself with what happened before because I have no control over that,” Polian said. “I wasn’t here for it, and I’m certainly not going to talk about all the things we did poorly. It’s about fundamentals and identifying personnel.
“In my previous stint as a head coach, I made sure that culture came from the top down, and Coach (Kelly) is doing the same thing here. He’s been incredibly supportive of everything that has been established, and that sends the message to the team that this is important because the boss is sitting in the room every time we meet.”
For now, it’s about establishing a level of expectation that once and for all solves – or at least curtails – the special teams issues that have plagued the Irish throughout much of the Kelly regime at Notre Dame.
“Coach (Bill) Belichick has a saying that situational football defines us,” Polian said.
“If Coach and I can come out of spring and say, ‘When we line up punt on the first day of training camp, this is what the two-deep is going to look like, and here are the best kickoff coverage guys,’ then it will have been a successful spring.”