Long seen as one of the weaker parts of Brian Kelly’s team, Season Six in South Bend has turned the special teams into a weapon for the Irish. And you’d really have been hard pressed to see it coming.
Yes, Notre Dame’s depth chart is as strong as it’s ever been. But stepping into key roles on special teams were true freshman placekicker Justin Yoon, redshirt freshman Tyler Newsome and true freshman CJ Sanders. Three first year performers with quite a responsibility hoisted onto their shoulders.
But they’ve all thrived in the situations. Yoon battled through some shaky moments to be a clutch operator. Newsome shanked one kick against Clemson, but also put up a career day for an Irish punter. And Sanders’ impact has turned him into one of the more dangerous punt returners in the nation.
With coverage teams doing their job and the Irish making a game-changing punt block against USC, it’s all come up roses for Scott Booker, who up until now served as a human piñata for Irish fans.
Let’s take a quick look at the specialists.
Justin Yoon — FG: 9 of 11, long of 52. PAT: 29 of 31
Tyler Newsome — 30 punts, 43.5 yard average, 13 inside 20, 9 of 50+ yards
CJ Sanders — Kick: 12 returns for 290, average 24.2, long of 46 Punt: 14 for 142, average of 10.1 yards per punt. Long of 50, one TD.
Amir Carlisle — Kick: 8 for 156, average of 19.5, long of 29
Co-MVPs: Justin Yoon & Tyler Newsome
Notre Dame’s freshman placekicker has missed a few kicks, most notably two extra point attempts. But after battling through some early struggles, Yoon has proven to be rock solid, never letting the moment get bigger than him.
After watching Notre Dame’s kick unit fall to pieces last season, Yoon’s resiliency has to be the most impressive thing so far. When called upon to make clutch kicks, especially against Clemson, Navy and USC, he’s been money. Brian Kelly said on Signing Day last February that Yoon would be one of the most impactful freshmen. He’s proven to be correct.
For as nice of a surprise as Yoon has been, Newsome’s ability to boom the football has come out of nowhere. While we all talked about DeShone Kizer‘s struggles in the spring game, Newsome was no great shakes, either. Yet put him on the field in 2015 and he’s shown the ability to flip the field, with nine 50+ yard punts and some really nice work pinning opponents inside the 20.
If all goes according to plan, Notre Dame’s next four seasons at kicker and punter are locked into place. You couldn’t ask for more.
Most Promising Future: CJ Sanders
Now that Notre Dame has the depth to enhance their special teams units, Sanders will likely be the beneficiary. The lightning-bug sized slot receiver isn’t getting the reps offensively some thought he’d get, but he quickly took over on kick returns and has been excellent returning punts as well.
Sanders has good speed, can turn on a dime and hasn’t shown any nerves catching the football. And after years of watching John Goodman call fair catches, having a game-changing return man who wasn’t absolutely mandatory as an every down player allows Kelly and Scott Booker to take some chances. Credit the freshman for allowing them to do it.