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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Position Group Breakdown: Special teams unit returns athleticism and production

Special teams is a very underrated yet extremely important factor in any team’s success, as dozens of games each year hinge on field goals or PATS, kickoff returns, punt blocks, and a variety of other special teams plays. Luckily for Notre Dame, they’ll see most of their major contributors return to the special teams unit in 2021. The Irish will hope to utilize their experienced kicking game to put up some extra points and pin opponents, while simultaneously creating some electric plays for themselves with their athletes. Let’s take a look at what Irish fans can expect from the special teams’ unit in 2021. 

Kicking Game

Graduate student Jonathan Doerer returns for his third season as Notre Dame's primary kicker. He’s perfect on PATs in the previous two seasons, going 54 for 54 in 2019 and 48 for 48 in 2020. His 5 for 6 performance on extra points against Navy in 2018 is the only PAT blemish on his record. This was also his only appearance during the season. However, the biggest question when it comes to Doerer is his field goals, where he seemingly took a step back in 2020.

After connecting on 13 of 16 attempts in 2019, the veteran had just 15 makes on 23 efforts this past season, and he ended on a pretty tough cold streak. After going 11-14 to start the season, punctuated with a clutch 4-5 effort against No. 1 Clemson in November, Doerer finished the season going just 4-9, including a chip-shot miss against the Tigers in the ACC Championship, along with a key miss in the Irish’s Rose Bowl defeat against Alabama at the end of the first half. 

Doerer was 11-14 on field goals under forty yards, and 4-9 from beyond that distance, making him a questionable option for the Irish offense if they are outside the red zone. The Irish need some more consistency from Doerer in 2021 as an offense full of new faces in the passing game works out the kinks. 

For punting, the Irish will turn to junior Jay Bramblett for the third straight season, who has been simply fantastic in his first two campaigns with the Irish. With a season-long of 59 yards last season, Bramblett averaged 42.8 yards per kick, demonstrating impressive consistency throughout his sophomore campaign. A consistent holder with an absolute cannon for a leg, Bramblett will be a staple to Notre Dame’s special teams’ success in 2021. 

The Return Game

The Irish didn’t mess around with kickoff returns too frequently, although part of that has to do with their opponents’ unwillingness to kick to then-freshman speedster Chris Tyree. Tyree averaged 20.7 yards on just 22 returns, and he figures to be the primary kick returner once more. The Irish would love to see some of that electric speed in the open field in the return game, although the priority is keeping their sophomore healthy to contribute to the offense as well. 

In the punt return game, Lawrence Keys has been featured as the main guy before, and he could certainly field a few in 2021, but it was Matt Salerno who took over last season with ten punt returns for the Irish. During the spring game, both Salerno and Keys fielded punts, as did speedy freshman wide receiver Lorenzo Styles, who could make his biggest impact in special teams during his debut season.

Rather than prioritize their return game (3.5 yards per return), the Irish often opted to bring a lot of pressure on opposing punters. That effort resulted in a pair of punt-block touchdowns. Look for disruptive presences like junior Isaiah Foskey or sophomore Jordan Botelho to be a factor in that area as well. 

Special Teams Grade

Aidan Thomas - Sports Writer

It’s hard not to like a lot of the tools that the Irish have at their disposal on special teams. Between Tyree on kick returns and some combination of Salerno, Keys, and Styles on punt returns, the Irish have plenty of elite and dynamic athleticism to make some plays. Botelho and Foskey and the rest of the line showed their ability to get to the punter. They'll continue to block kicks in 2020.

Bramblett is about as consistent as you want as a punter, and he’s got a big leg with the chance to improve, so I think the Irish will frequently win the field position battle. Doerer is the biggest question mark. At the very least though, he’s consistent on the extra points, and hopefully, he’s more in 2019 form when it comes to field goals. He’s not much of a threat from long distance, which detracts from the overall position grade. Still, though, this is a strong group for the Irish. 

Grade: A-