Notre Dame Special Teams Failures Require Kelly’s Focus

Notre Dame fans have had very little to cheer about this fall, a fact that finally began to change Saturday afternoon against Syracuse in New Jersey.  Notre Dame’s defense surrendered piles of yardage and 33 points, but the defense won big on a very important statistic: third down.  Newly appointed defensive coordinator Greg Hudson held Syracuse’s up-tempo offensive attack to a 20-percent conversion rate on third downs, providing Notre Dame’s offense enough opportunities to put the game away.  While the defense is far from fixed, it was stabilized enough to draw attention to other areas of concern that have plagued Notre Dame since head coach Brian Kelly’s arrival.

Leading 33-20 with less than sixty seconds to go until halftime, Notre Dame was in strong position to demoralize a Syracuse team that had been surprisingly frustrated by the Irish defense.  The momentum was short-lived, however, as Syracuse’s Brisly Estime returned a Tyler Newsome punt 74 yards, setting up a Syracuse touchdown drive that took only eight seconds to make the game 33-27.  While Notre Dame’s special teams played an important role on Saturday with C.J. Sanders’ 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and Cole Luke taking a blocked extra point the distance for two points, overall the special teams unit has been extremely costly this season.

Notre Dame came out energized against Duke and took a quick 14-0 lead after an 8-yard DeShone Kizer scramble and a 44-yard strike to Kevin Stepherson.  The momentum of the game was completely altered after Duke running back Shaun Wilson took the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, bringing the Blue Devils back into the game and signaling the beginning of the end for the Irish.

A similar situation unfolded against Michigan State.  Notre Dame started the game with a C.J. Sanders kick return for a touchdown that was negated by a penalty.  Then, in the middle of the second quarter and leading MSU 7-0, the Notre Dame defense forced a Michigan State punt.  Miles Boykin fumbled the return – which was ultimately recovered by the Spartans – leading to a one-play, 38-yard touchdown pass to Donnie Corley that began the Michigan State landslide victory.

Notre Dame’s issues on special teams extend far beyond this season and have been a persistent and overlooked problem since Brian Kelly’s arrival.  In Kelly’s first year in South Bend Notre Dame ranked 75th nationally in kick returns and 100th in punt returns.  In 2011, Notre Dame was 102nd in net punting and 112th in punt returns.   In 2012, the year of the undefeated regular season, Notre Dame ranked 116th in punt returns and 93rd in kick returns.  This season, in addition to the games that have been lost due to shoddy special teams play, Notre Dame sits 91st in net punt returns.

What’s shocking about these numbers is that Kelly was extremely successful on special teams while at Cincinnati.  At one point during his tenure in Cincinnati the Bearcats even led the nation in net punting, with the Cincinnati Bearcats’ website stating Kelly “believes in a strong special teams unit”.  Yet while at Notre Dame Kelly has appeared visibly agitated when asked about special teams by the media.

What can be done to fix the situation?  The first step is to take a closer look at specials teams and tight ends coach, Scott Booker.  In addition to abysmal play on special teams, Notre Dame has been on a downward spiral with its tight end production since Booker took the helm in 2012.  In 2015 Notre Dame’s tight ends only managed to record 19 receptions for 226 yards and one touchdown.  This season the tight end unit has been limited to 5 receptions for 65 yards and one touchdown, production that would have been pedestrian for Tyler Eifert in one game when he wore a golden helmet.

The run blocking hasn’t been much better.  Up 23-13 on Syracuse late in the first quarter, Brian Kelly opted to go for it on fourth and goal from the one-yard line.  Kizer handed the ball to Dexter Williams who popped to the outside before being stuffed by two Orange defenders that gained penetration after Nick Weishar whiffed on two blocks.

The 2016 season, although still in its infancy, has been one of deep reflection for Brian Kelly, and this offseason a comprehensive audit of what is and isn’t working within the Notre Dame program will need to take place.  One of the key components of that internal evaluation will have to be whether Scott Booker has done enough in his time in South Bend to warrant being present for the 2017 season.

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 scottjanssenhp@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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9 comments

  1. Bruce Gregory Curme 3 years ago

    Special Teams are a pretty big part of any game. They are also often times the step-child of the coaching profession.
    And it’s not just punt return yardage against us that I’m thinking about. When your special team forgets to guard a two point conversion, for example. Now I have not forgotten that our guys have scored twice on PAT’s. That’s phenomenal, almost impossible. But there is also blocking punts once in awhile, making 80-90% of your field goals (yet I like Yoon a lot – I just haven’t seen him improve), faking punts, and other stuff that can be very situational.
    As for Coach Booker, I’ll say it again – I like him with the TE’s…that is a big enough job by itself. And so is “special teams coach.”
    Bruce G. Curme
    La Crosse, Indiana

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  2. Bruce Gregory Curme 3 years ago

    Robert Rodes,

    That’s right. I want Booker back where he belongs.
    But I would also like a ST coach on board next year.
    The obvious problem is that someone would have to leave the field – become a non-coach coach, whatever that is.
    And I don’t have enough close information to know if that is worth it.
    Bruce GC

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  3. Michael the Archangel 3 years ago

    Who whiffed two blocks on the fourth down call? Nic Weishar.
    ND has three TEs that are better TE blockers than Weishar.
    Maybe putting in any of the three at TE for the play they called might have been a better idea.

    It seems the only people who were unaware of the minimal chances of that play succeeding
    were the ND coaches who called that play to run behind Weishar. As for Booker, recruits have mentioned him as an excellent recruiter, a vital part of what a college assistant needs to be (ask Van Gorder), and if/when Booker is let go, he’ll be hired on as an assistant sooner than later.

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  4. Bob Rodes 3 years ago

    Erk. I meant to cut the last paragraph. Reply is too wordy as it is. I wish we could edit our responses here.

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  5. Bob Rodes 3 years ago

    I don’t agree with this assertion: “Notre Dame’s issues on special teams extend far beyond this season and have been a persistent and overlooked problem since Brian Kelly’s arrival.” The stats you use to back that assertion up are so slanted that it’s hard to believe that you would support it if you hadn’t suspended your capacity for critical thinking. It’s the sort of thing that happens when a writer comes up with an attention-grabbing premise and gets emotionally involved in supporting it to the point that he catches the confirmation bias bug. The assertion is tough to support with a more complete assessment of relevant facts. The stats for the last three years of Kelly’s tenure, which you entirely omit (!), are relevant facts.

    A “persistent and overlooked” problem is one that doesn’t show attention or improvement. While strictly speaking, a problem can be given attention without showing improvement, it’s reasonable to assume that a competent coach will improve the areas he pays attention to. Therefore it’s also reasonable to assume that attention will show improvement and vice versa.

    Given that, stats that show improvement in an area also show attention to the area, and refute the assertion that the area has been overlooked. Also, stats that show an improvement in an area refute the assertion that a lack of improvement is persistent. Therefore, there shouldn’t be any improvement in the special teams during Kelly’s tenure if they have been overlooked, nor should there be if the problem is persistent. Since special teams improvement during those years is demonstrable, one may conclude that your assertion that the problems are persistent and overlooked is false.

    I’m using FEI special teams data from footballoutsiders.com. In 2013, ND was 59th in kickoff return efficiency and 70th in punt return efficiency. In 2014, the numbers were 25th KRE and 29th PRE, and in 2015 they were 87th in KRE and 25th in PRE. All of those numbers are better than the ones you cite. Ergo, there has been improvement in those areas in the years 2013 to 2015.

    More to the point (since it’s a stat that more accurately reflects overall special teams performance than the ones you use), the overall FEI special teams rankings are: 2010, 24th; 2011, 52nd; 2012, 87th; 2013, 59th; 2014, 53rd; 2015, 19th. (The outlier in 2010 was due to a third-place ranking in field goal efficiency, dropping to 88th in 2011. This presumably because David Ruffer went 18 for 19 in 2010 and 10 for 16 in 2011.) Those stats also show improvement in special teams in the years that you omit.

    So, the stats demonstrate that the special teams unit has improved during Kelly’s tenure, and refute your assertion that they have not.

    However. The stats also indicate that the unit has regressed this year, and significantly. The stats also indicate that the unit is performing at nowhere near the level of, say Alabama or Michigan. (An overall comparison to elite teams in an article about Notre Dame’s underperformance in the last few years would be a much more compelling one than this one IMHO. Maybe you’ll write one.) Despite recruiting a lot of speed that we’ve put to good use in the teams, the defensive aspect of the teams is as terrible as the overall defense. This is clearly obvious when we see that in 2015 opponents returned 22 of 57 for 8.82 yards on average, whereas this year opponents have returned 10 of 20 for an egregious 18.7 yards on average. If you had made this the focus of your arguments about special teams, it wouldn’t have come across as slanted, since it’s easily supportable with facts.

    I also share your concern about Scott Booker. The tight ends have regressed since he took over from Mike Denbrock, and the lack of blocking fundamentals in senior players that you mention is troublesome. However, the special teams problems aren’t so much with the pure special teams players–kickers, holders and long snappers. Rather, they are primarily with return yardage allowed. Since those players are from the defense, and in particular less experienced players on the defense, the problems they’re having stem from lack of attention to fundamentals (missed tackles stand out) in defensive coaching. So, it’s not clear that that aspect of special teams performance is entirely on Booker. Better tackling on defense will also lead to better breaking of tackles on offense, since the offense will be more challenged in practice on that score.

    That said, I don’t share your opinion that he ought to be let go if he doesn’t improve. He’s currently Notre Dame’s top-ranked recruiter, primary for Wright, Ewell and Holmes this year. BVG was primary recruiter on only two recruits his entire time at ND, to Booker’s 18. That’s not something to lose. If Kelly was willing to fire BVG, I’m confident he’ll be willing to find a place for Booker–sooner rather than later–that is more consistent with his abilities, if that’s a step that needs to be taken.

    I see Kelly as taking a triage approach. First, defense matters more than special teams. If the defense is hemorrhaging yards, that’s going to lose more games than special teams doing the same, because defense runs more plays than special teams. Next, in special teams, the problems aren’t with the pure special teams players–kickers, holders and long snappers. The problems are primarily with return yardage allowed. Since those players are from the defense, and in particular less experienced players on the defense, the problems they’re having stem from lack of attention to fundamentals in defensive coaching. So, it’s not clear that that aspect of special teams performance is entirely on Booker, the tight ends problems notwithstanding. I’ll look for improvement there as the overall defense improves.

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  6. Jimbo 3 years ago

    As I stated many times, Cincy is obviously NOT ND. 2 completely different animals as it has been proven by Kelly’s record at ND. Very stubborn with the “I know everything” attitude.

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  7. mzipprich 3 years ago

    At 5 games in, the season is not “The 2016 season, although still in its infancy” as the author states. 1-3 games in, yes, at 5, you have a decent idea of what the team is.

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  8. Leprechauns Crock 3 years ago

    Hire Frank Beamer this summer as a consultant/analyst to determine just what needs to be done to field an “average” special teams package.

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  9. pete 3 years ago

    I agree totally. Booker needs to go and let Denbrock take over the receivers including the tight ends. Sanford to full time ocoordinator.

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