After this year’s NFL draft, Notre Dame took home third-place honors for having nine players selected. The Alabama Crimson Tide and Ohio State Buckeyes finished with just one more at 10. Although that is a ton of talent to lose at one time, it will not affect special teams much at all. It still has its trinity intact with fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer, junior punter Jay Bramblett, and senior long snapper Michael Vinson.
Much of their supporting cast will be returning as well. Veteran special teams coach Brian Polian admitted that he could not remember another season in which special teams had as much continuity returning.“I’m very lucky this year,” coach Polian confessed. “We’ve got so many core guys back with Bo Bauer, Shayne Simon, Marist Liufau, Jack Kiser, JD Bertrand, Isiah Pryor. I don’t know of any time in my 24-year career I ever had such a large core group that is returning. So, I’m really excited about that. It’s been a lot of fun to coach here through training camp. It’s made it so that I’m not sure we are going to have to play a lot of freshmen early by necessity. Obviously, through the course of the season, things can change. And as it relates to the specialists, Jon and I have been together for five years. Michael has been here for at least three, and Jay is going on his third year.”
His most familiar disciple, Doerer hopes to bounce back from a down 2020 season in which he was successful on 15 of 23 field goal attempts. However, he failed to connect on four of his final nine. In fact, his field goal percentage fell from 85.0% in 2019 to 65.2% in 2020. Doerer said he is more relaxed this season due to the lessons he learned over the past few years in balancing success with failure, but acknowledged the nervousness is still there when it comes to kicking.
“I’m more comfortable (now) obviously,” Doerer revealed. “I know what to expect in a sense. I still get nervous like I did when I was a junior. That doesn’t change, which is what I love about it. The game is still the same. I have the experience now, so it’s really more about trying to home in on those things I picked up over the last two years throughout the good and the bad and try to bring them together this year.”
Doerer echoed the same sentiment for Polian that his coach described for the entire special teams regarding having a sense of comfort and familiarity. Like Polian, Doerer acknowledged it does not happen often.
“It’s been great having the same coach for five years,” Doerer expressed. “It’s rare in college football. It’s rare for a kicker. It’s been really good for us working through a relationship. We’ve gotten to know each other really well now. Just the stability of that has meant a lot to us. He is someone I know who has always been in my corner. It’s someone I know who is really plugged into the next level who has insight. It’s been really good to have a consistent voice that has been a really steady presence for me. I know when I get too high, he brings me down. When I get too low, he brings me back up. The mental part is a huge role. He’s like a caddy of sorts. He tries to keep me at an even keel, so I can play my best.”
Doerer finishing the 2021 season perfect in field goal attempts would certainly improve Notre Dame’s chances of winning games, but so would pinning the opponent deep in enemy territory to begin drives. That is something Notre Dame’s punter, Jay Bramblett, will be focused on. Last season, he averaged 42.8 yards per punt while constraining teams to 15 fair catches. He also placed 12 punts inside of the 20-yard line. The Ray Guy Award Watch List member hopes to accomplish that feat more times than not this season.
“I think I’ve focused on it more this season than I’ve ever focused on it,” Bramblett said of consistency. “Obviously, being a specialist, that is the top deal. It doesn’t matter if you can kick a 50-yard ball with great hangtime unless you do it every time.
“No return is what I want to see,” Bramblett continued. “If you’re holding the return team to zero yards and you got a 42, 44, or 45-yard punt, I don’t think anybody is going to complain about that.”
Punting the football was not the only duty Bramblett served during his sophomore campaign. He was also the holder for extra points and field goals. According to coach Polian, he will be receiving snaps from walk-on long snapper Michael Vinson this season. But, much like Doerer and Bramblett, his consistent drive to become the best at his position afforded him the opportunity to start for the Irish.
“Michael is a great example of, first of all, WOPU Nation, the proud tradition of walk-on players here at Notre Dame, and I think coach Kelly, and through coach Kelly, my commitment to, we are a results-based program,” Polian stated. “He was a walk-on player from outside of Chicago. We scholarshipped Alex Peitsch, but we made it clear to both parties that this is going to be a competition.
“Michael, he’s got an incredible skill to throw a ball between your legs 15 yards in 0.7 seconds and do it accurately. That’s a pretty elite skill,” Polian added. “He has improved himself so much athletically so that he can get out there and cover a kick and fall on the pile every once in a while at the end of the punt. I’m just so proud of him. He’s got so many fans in our locker room because they see how hard that kid has worked. It’s no slight to Alex. Both guys have worked really hard, but again, we’re in a results-based business, and in the end, how can coach Kelly or any of us get up in front of the team and say, hey, it’s a meritocracy. You get what you earn. Michael has earned this job, and he’s not giving it up, and we’re a better football team for that.”
Vinson’s commitment to excellence not only earned him a spot in the starting line-up this season, but it also added his name to the Patrick Mannelly Award Watch List, which is awarded to the best long snapper in college football.