The off-season coaching carousel decided to make one more stop at Notre Dame over the weekend with Brian Mason, the reigning Special Teams Coach of the Year, headed off to the NFL to be the special teams coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts.
Before Mason’s arrival, special teams were more of a liability than a weapon under Brian Polian, who followed Brian Kelly to LSU only to be removed from his special teams duties and placed in an admin role after a disastrous season of special teams for the Tigers. Blocked kicks were rare. Fair catches on punt returns, the norm. Mason didn’t make a huge dent in the punt return game, but his mark on Notre Dame special teams was undeniable.
Notre Dame blocked an insane seven punts in 2022 under Brian Mason and his mantra of creating chaos. That was possible because head coach Marcus Freeman prioritized special teams, and the Irish used headline players on their special teams’ units. The seven blocks were the most in all of college football in a decade and tied for the most ever in a single season for the Fighting Irish.
Oh yeah, and even the punt return game was improved, although it did still feel like that could reach another level or two. Considering all the work Mason got done in one year, though, I don’t think anyone doubted that would have been possible this season.
It might sound like hyperbole to label losing a special teams coordinator as a massive loss, but when your special teams units are as good as Notre Dame’s were in 2022, it isn’t. Special teams changed the trajectory of games for Notre Dame in 2022. A blocked punt by Jordan Botelho that Prince Kollie returned for a touchdown against Clemson set the tone for the entire game. Two blocks by Isiah Foskey helped overcome a sluggish start against UNLV before Notre Dame cruised to victory.
While Notre Dame’s defense struggled to generate turnovers in 2022, Brian Mason’s special teams acted like an extension of the defense with all of the punt blocks. Finding a replacement for that won’t be easy in 2023, but a good start for the Irish would actually be in increasing the number of turnovers the Irish defense generates so that there doesn’t have to be as much of a reliance on the special teams unit to make a huge play. The level of chaos that Notre Dame achieved in Brian Mason’s lone season in South Bend likely wasn’t sustainable.
The Indianapolis Colts coming calling for Mason created a perfect storm of sorts for his departure. The Colts are reportedly a dream job for Mason, an Indiana native. Had the Colts not called, Mason probably returns for another season in South Bend, even though other NFL teams were interested in his services as well.
Notre Dame is reportedly set to hire Ole Miss special teams coach Marty Biagi, a two-time finalist for Special Teams Coach of the Year from Football Scoop. Biagi is one of the better special teams coaches in college football, but he will be hard-pressed to replicate the kind of success that Mason brought to Notre Dame’s special teams in the blocked kicks department. Heck, Mason was going to be hard-pressed to replicate his own success again this season.
Working in Biagi’s favor, assuming he is officially hired as reports suggest, is the culture of the program that Freeman and Mason built with regard to special teams. Top-line players were begging to get on the punt block team at Notre Dame because of the success it had. That’s not normal at most places, but it happened at Notre Dame because of what Mason and Freeman built. It will be up to Freeman to ensure that continues under the guidance of a new special teams coordinator, whether that be Biagi or someone else.
Regardless, losing Brian Mason is a big loss for the Irish – especially this close to the start of spring football. The good news for Notre Dame over the weekend was that wide receivers coach Chansi Stuckey and safeties coach Chris O’Leary, who also were getting some NFL interest, are both expected to return to Notre Dame, meaning the Irish should be done with coaching turnover for the year.