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Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024
The Observer

Notre Dame's special teams unit returns starters, adjusts to changes

On a team that saw a good deal of turnover from last season to the start of this spring, Notre Dame’s one constant is a group that goes largely unnoticed: the special teams unit.

The Irish return graduate student long snapper Scott Daly, junior punter Tyler Newsome, sophomore kicker Justin Yoon and kick and punt returner sophomore C.J. Sanders, all of whom started at their respective positions last season. The continuity is the group’s strongest characteristic, as each player can focus on improving both individually and the unit as a whole, Daly said.

“Obviously we are going to return all of our guys next year, and I think that’s only going to help us improve,” Daly said. “We had two first-year guys last year, and they did a fantastic job, so I think with their hard work and dedication and their great mindset of coming to practice every day with a purpose — trying to get better — it’s only going to be better.”

That’s not to say there have not been changes that have affected the unit. The first change was the addition of special teams analyst Marty Biagi to the coaching staff, whose impact has been largely positive so far, Yoon and Newsome said.

“He’s definitely been around us a lot lately,” Yoon said. “He’s been providing whatever necessary work he can. For instance, he’s helped us stretch a lot because we need to be flexible. … We go through new routines that he’s come up with, and we talk to him and negotiate what we think about it and see why it’s important to us and we continue to do it.”

“He does have a lot more insight,” Newsome said. “We would watch film with [special teams coordinator Scott Booker] too, and he knows what he was talking, but now its just — I guess the more the merrier in that sense. You have more people helping you and guiding you on things you can improve on. … It’s nice to have somebody to let you know what you need to work on constantly.”

The other significant change was made last week when junior quarterback Montgomery VanGorder took over as holder for fellow junior quarterback DeShone Kizer. Daly said the change has not had a significant impact on him because his job is to make everyone else’s job in the unit as easy as possible, no matter who that might be.

“To me, it’s honestly seven yards either way, no matter who’s holding the ball,” Daly said. “My job is to make their job as easy as possible, which at the end of the day is going to help Justin and [senior kicker] John Chereson’s job as easy as possible. I just try to go to work every day with a purpose, just trying to get better at something each and every day and try to improve myself to help [the unit].”

Irish sophomore kicker Justin Yoon attempts a field goal during Notre Dame's spring practice session Saturday at Loftus Sports Center.
Irish sophomore kicker Justin Yoon attempts a field goal during Notre Dame's spring practice session Saturday at Loftus Sports Center.

For Yoon, the change has forced him to adapt from last year, but he said he has been impressed with VanGorder’s work ethic, which has made the transition easier.

“They’re both great holders,” Yoon said. “Kickers have their own little ways with holders. We look at the ball differently and it’s a different angle and everything, so I think it’s just something that makes us really picky about it.

“But I think [VanGorder] has been proving himself. He’s been coming out multiple times throughout the day asking me to help him — asking me to work with him — and I’ve never seen such work ethic from him so I really respect that from him. … He’s been doing an awesome job about it.”

Regardless of the changes, however, the goal for the unit each and every practice remains the same, Daly said.

“We’re always working on something and fine tuning,” Daly said. “For specialists, it’s a game of inches, so one inch here can make a big difference on the field, so we’re always trying to fine tune ourselves, always trying to be meticulous about how we got about our business and just always trying to improve every day. Just trying to find one aspect of our game that we can get better [at].”


Offensive lineman competition

For the offensive line, many people wondered how the Irish would replace former stalwarts Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin. However, the left side of the line has been solidified with the move of senior Mike McGlinchey from the right to the left side, where he will join incumbent starters junior Quenton Nelson and Sam Mustipher. McGlinchey in particular has become a vocal leader for the unit as a whole, junior offensive lineman Alex Bars said.

“He’s become a lot more vocal,” Bars said. “I mean, I learned a lot from Nick [Martin] and Ronnie [Stanley] last year, but he’s become a lot more vocal with us, and he’s really taken it upon himself to get this group together.”

The right side still remains in question as the competition unfolds amongst Bars, sophomore Tristen Hoge and seniors Colin McGovern and Hunter Bivin. Nelson said the competition has been beneficial for the unit, however, as it has brought out the best in all four players.

“I can’t say enough about the right side,” Nelson said. “Everyone competing for the right side — Hoge, Bars, Bivin and Colin — they’re all doing great.”

Regardless of how it shakes out, the group’s goal is to continue to grow and challenge each other to play to its greatest potential, Bars said.

“We learned from last year’s group, and we want to exceed expectations that we have already,” Bars said. “ … We know the standard, so we’re just living up to that.”