How Important are Special Teams?

Brian Kelly, Notre Dame spring game 2013
Apr 20, 2013; Notre Dame, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly waits to lead his team onto the field for the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Just how bad are the special team units for the Irish, well – really bad actually. It’s no surprise to Irish fans as to just how bad they actually are, as they have endured mediocre to sub-par performances for the last few years now in this department.  You also know a unit is struggling, when coach Brian Kelly has to speak about it in his Spring press conference, promising that it will be a point of focus in the off- season and Fall practice.

The special teams units have been a point of contention now for too long, with some believing that that facet of the Irish team is incredibly important, while others maintain it’s a nice to have, but not a need to have. Let’s be honest, the Irish found a way to go undefeated in the regular season despite the lack of consistency in this area, and there were no real signs in the BCS title game that would lead one to believe the Irish would have had a better showing, if the special teams were a stronger individual unit.

So were the Irish just lucky to get through last season unblemished, despite their sub-par efforts on special teams, or does it truly not matter, if your offense and defense can erase any of these deficiencies?. Here is the list of the top five teams that excelled in the special teams department for 2012 in regards to field goal%, punt avg., kick return avg., and punt return avg. We have also included where the Irish ended up based off of the 124 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Field Goal % Punt Avg

1) Tulane (100%)

2) Northwestern(95.2%)

3) San Jose State(94.7%)

4) Boston College(90%)

5) Colorado State(90%)

52) Notre Dame(75%)

1) Louisiana Tech(48yrds)

2) Oklahoma State(46.3yrds)

3) Houston (45.4yrds)

4) Arizona State(45.3)

5) Texas(45.3yrds)

68) Notre Dame(40.8)

Kick Return Avg Punt Return Avg

1) Kansas State(29.2)

2) Miami(FL21.4)

3) Tulsa(26.6)

4) USC(26.4)

5) Texas State(26.2)

97) Notre Dame(19.6)

1) Boston College(21.7)

2) Kansas State(18.9)

3) Texas State(16.7)

4) Northwestern(16.6)

5) Texas-SA(15.6)

120) Notre Dame(2.2)

It’s easy to look at one category and see a familiar team and assume they do well in all four areas, but obviously that is not the case and can be very misleading. We wanted to take a deeper look and decided to break down the top 20 teams in the nation by each individual category in field goal%, punt average, and kick and punt return average. We took a look at how many top 20 coaches poll teams were in the top 20 of each category, and were surprised by how few teams really do excel in every area. Here is the list of teams that were in the final top 20 coaches poll, and also in the top 20 of each individual category –

Top 20 teams in top 20 of all four categories

  • No team did this

Top 20 teams in top 20 of 3 out of 4 categories

  • Florida
  • Florida State
  • Kansas State

Top 20 teams in top 20 of 2 out of 4 categories

  • LSU
  • Oklahoma
  • Northwestern
  • Vanderbilt

As you can see out the final top 20 coaches poll, only 3 teams were ranked in the top 20 of each special teams category mentioned before. It was not much better as we dropped down to being in the top 20 of just two categories, as only four teams out of the top 20 accomplished this. Next we wanted to take the final top 10  oaches poll and take their average ranking across the board in all four categories and compare them against each other, and against Notre Dame, here is what we found. Once again, please keep in mind that there are currently 124 teams playing in the FBS.

Final top 10 coaches poll Avg. ranking in 4 categories

1. Alabama

2. Oregon

3. Notre Dame

4. Georgia

5. Texas A&M

6. Stanford

7. South Carolina

8. Florida State

9. Clemson

10. Florida











Once again, the results were very interesting as really only a single team (Florida) truly excelled across the board in all four special teams categories. What was even more surprising is how many teams were deep on the list close to Notre Dame. Six of the top 10 teams in the nation in 2012 had averages that were in the middle, or lower in all of college football.

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Please keep in mind that the purpose of this was not to try and convince anyone of anything, it was simply to look at the statistical data and see if there is any correlation between the absolute necessity of having great special team units, and a season record that matches. Most college football fans understand the importance of a great place-kicker, a punter who can pin the opposing team deep in their own territory, or a kick or punt returner who can take it to the house. Just having one of these weapons can be a true game changer, but is it an absolute necessity if you want a shot at the national title game, statistics would tell you no.

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  1. paul wachsman 5 years ago


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  2. HURLS 5 years ago

    I was enrolled for the ’88 NatChamp. Lou Holtz was coach. I won’t credit him with the “quote”, but he certainly held this same philosophy:

    “There are 3 parts to a football team: offense, Defense, and SPECIAL-TEAMS. Neglect one part and you neglect the team.”

    In other, less-anecdotal words, there’s a reason “special Teams” are called “Special.” Hawaiian Reggie Ho single-footedly…er, single-handedly defeated (sc)UM to start the season. (4 FG’s) SPECIAL TEAMS. Rocket Ismail was essential throughout that year. SPECIAL-TEAMS. Simply put, sub-par SPECIAL-TEAMS means no NatChamp. As a fellow-Bostonian of Kelly’s, I assert that SPECIAL-TEAMS are “WICKED” important. Alluding to the Roman Catholic figurehead of the Trinity, what good is a 2-faced-Trinity? (think about the political implications of that)

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  3. Jimbo 5 years ago

    ND should be able to fall forward and still average more than 2.2 yds per punt return.

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  4. David Knight 5 years ago

    I would think that every thing has to come down to blocking and coaching. You don’t have to necessarily have a 4.28 Rocket Ismail nor Tim Brown back there. Zibby was fairly successful and he is not a blazer. He must have had decent blocking and you don’t have to knock him on his butt, just stall him long enough for the PR to get by. I have heard that Brian Kelly references different rules that when ND’s better return men were there, I’m not sure what rule changes have taken place. Sorry, forgot Allen Rossum, too. Is there some different rules in place to make returns more difficult? Keep up the good convos. I’m in the Middle east and this is as good as it gets for me.

    Stay Blessed–>>DK

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  5. bj 5 years ago

    the article on special teams was dribble. the rocket, tim brown, a great field goal kicker, all indications of a national title team, the fact that anybody would accept less than the best, is bs. be the best you can be.

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    1. Toulmin H. Brown 5 years ago


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    2. HJPrender 5 years ago

      You nailed it, or as George Allen, Lombardi and a few other notables used to say special teams are 30 percent

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  6. D-Train 65 5 years ago

    Excellent article BOB very “thought” provoking. While several people seem to discount the necessity of excelling in ST categories I see it as a scenario that while you don’t need to be top 10 in all categories to go undefeated, when you consider how close the Irish came to having a 7-5 or 8-4 record with the numerous close finishes eg Purdue/BYU/Pitt/Stnaford etc any small “edge” in a game could be the difference in going to the NC and calling for the coach to be fired. My concern with Kelly is we looked just as bad last year in all areas except FG kicking as we did in 2012. No punt returner both years, nothing special in punting both years, take out GAIII’s two returns in 12′ and we did little in kick-off returns both years etc. How come NO IMPROVEMENTS for 2 years and now looking at Brindza as the punter (judging) by Spring game he is worse then Turk and not much better in FG kicking. With Neal gone we still need a punt return specialist and SOME BLOCKING for both punt and KO return units. Kelly said he is going to follow Saban’s lead and put all the best athletes on special team units even if they are starters on OFF/DEF etc. Well that is fine but you still need a system to free up a Devin Hester type etc.

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  7. Lou 5 years ago

    I think it’s time for a dedicated special teams coach. Just do it like Alabama does with their extra set of coaches and hire him as a special teams consultant.

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  8. Toulmin H. Brown 5 years ago

    “How Important are Special Teams?”


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  9. dinglewood 5 years ago

    Basically agree with Matt. Also see STs like infrastructure … not noticed until something goes horribly wrong sometimes at a really inappropriate time.

    Overall think of our recent STs as somewhere between mediocre and poor. However would like to see different stats to assess that like net punting tied to field position changes … short and high might come out way better than long and low & kick into the end zone distorts the impact on field position and so forth.

    Place kicking needs to account for missed extra points and ranges of made or missed kicks. Have seen #s that looked poor because a kicker had such good range the coaches opted for a FG vice a punt.

    Blocked kicks both for and agin need to be accounted for as they often result in massive changes of field position or erase makable placekicks.

    Overall it seems to me that any team that has recruited positional talent reasonably well should be able to add the snappers, kickers and gunners to be at least as good if not better than opponents. This is definitely not us.

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  10. duranko 5 years ago

    It seems the first rule of special teams is not to lose the game on special teams. CF. Michigan State 2010 in OT. Cf Tulsa 2010 with the late punt return for a TD. Thopse plays were either dispositive or significant.

    In 2012, the longest kickoff return the irish gave up was 44 yards. The longest punt return the Irish gave up was 31 yards. No Irish punts were blocked.

    I may be in a minority here, but I will take 2012’s results every year, not losing the game on special teams and winning the game on offense and defense.

    I’m particularly sanguine about that because there is a strong likelihood
    that our offense will arrive in 2013, as in “explode.”

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  11. Matt 5 years ago

    But it would appear that we have a gap to close even here. While it may not be completely detrimental, it would help make some of our “close” games much more comfortable in terms of margin of victory. To be blunt we are below average in special teams and it shows every Saturday in the fall.

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    1. Toulmin H. Brown 5 years ago


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