Euphoria set in after Kyle Brindza hit on a 32-yard field goal attempt as the clock expired against LSU in the Music City Bowl, propelling Notre Dame to a 31-28 victory over an SEC team for the first time in eight seasons. And after the well-documented struggles of Notre Dame’s special teams throughout the 2014 season – a common theme during head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend – winning by a field goal brought an additional therapeutic element to the victory.
The feeling was nice while it lasted. The spring practice session opened to the media put an end to the honeymoon period in a hurry. Brian Kelly made a concerted effort to showcase the importance of special teams within the minds of the coaching staff by immediately breaking into special teams drills after the initial warm-up period, but good intentions don’t always translate to success.
Quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer rotated at the holder position while reporters were treated to multiple repetitions of low snaps and shanked short yardage field goal attempts. The brief showing gave succinct but powerful evidence the status quo of poor special teams play has returned, a development which is nothing short of baffling.
Notre Dame’s special teams play has been a train wreck since Brian Kelly arrived in South Bend at the end of 2009. In his first season as head coach Notre Dame finished 75th nationally in kickoff returns and 100th in punt returns. In 2011, the Irish were 102nd in net punting and 112th in punt returns. Even during Kelly’s most successful season in 2012 Notre Dame posted bottom-feeding numbers on special teams, finishing 116th in punt returns and 93rd in kickoff returns.
What makes these results so befuddling is the fact Brian Kelly’s Cincinnati squad thrived on special teams, finishing 2nd in kick returns and 18th in punt returns his final year as head man of the Bearcats. Adding to the mystery has been Kelly’s agitated demeanor whenever the performance of Notre Dame’s special teams unit is broached at press conferences. Whatever the cause may be to the Fighting Irish’s special teams woes, the problem was on full display in 2014 with kicker Kyle Brindza’s struggles.
Kyle Brindza was hailed by Scout as the No. 1 kicker coming out of high school and enjoyed a record-setting career at Notre Dame. During his sophomore season Brindza connected on 74-percent of his attempts, a number he bested his junior year when he converted nearly 77-percent of his field goal tries. Brindza’s career was productive enough to land him on the Lou Groza – an annual award given to the nation’s best collegiate kicker – Watch List. Most recently, at Notre Dame’s Pro Day last week, Brindza booted nearly every kickoff attempt out of bounds, impressing NFL scouts enough that several mentioned the talented kicker could potentially be drafted, a rarity at his position.
Yet Brindza’s senior season at Notre Dame was disastrous. Not only did his conversion rate drop to a career low of 58-percent, but Brindza was caught on national television berating holder Malik Zaire after a failed 32-yard field goal that doomed Notre Dame’s chances against Louisville in the two programs’ first ever meeting.
How Notre Dame could possess a kicker some NFL scouts have deemed talented enough to take during the NFL Draft and still manage to struggle so mightily is unknown, and it’s a question that lingers around the program as freshman kicker Justin Yoon prepares to enroll this summer. Scott Booker, Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator, has already tabbed Yoon as the starter for 2015 despite Yoon having yet to set one cleat on campus.
Yoon certainly has the pedigree to meet the challenge. In addition to being rated by multiple outlets as the No. 1 kicker in the nation, Yoon set two records at the Under Armour All-American Game – an annual bowl game where the nation’s best high school talent competes – for longest field goal (47-yards) and most field goals with three.
Brian Kelly also spoke highly of the young kicker after National Signing Day.
“We think (Justin) is the best kicker in the country,” Kelly told the media. “I think you’ll see him as being one of the real stars in this class in terms of impacting right away.”
If Notre Dame is to build upon the momentum created from the Music City Bowl victory against LSU, Notre Dame’s special teams play must get better. And much of that success will now hinge upon the leg of a true freshman.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.