Notre Dame’s punt return coverage has been good enough this season. No opponent has returned a punt (or a kick) for a touchdown. Few have been broken for advantageous field position. On 15 returns, Irish opponents have averaged nine yards per chance.
Yet, it is a primary concern for No. 9 Notre Dame heading into Saturday’s matchup with No. 14 North Carolina State. (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC.) Wolfpack junior running back Nyheim Hines has returned seven punts for 137 yards this season, including a 92-yard touchdown in NC State’s most recent game two weeks ago at Pittsburgh.
“We can’t outkick our coverage,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “55 yard punts are not good for us. We can’t stretch out our coverage units where we give big spaces and field for a guy like this. We need 4.5, 4.4 [seconds of] hang time. I’ll take 38-to-42 [yards] and give us great coverage opportunities. The punting is really going to be key in this game with a dangerous return man.”
In addition to a level of natural shiftiness, Hines’ threat derives from his elite speed. In the spring, he moonlights with the Wolfpack track team, qualifying for the NCAA Regionals in both the 100-meter dash and the 4-by-100-meter relay despite spending only part of his year on the oval. Hines also made the ACC first-team in the 100-meter in 2017 thanks to a wind-aided 10.34 seconds. Without the wind at his back, he ran 10.42 seconds in the first round of prelims at the NCAA East Regional, his personal record.
To date, the longest punt return allowed by Notre Dame was a 28-yarder to Georgia’s Mecole Hardman. He also notched the longest kick return allowed, at 38 yards, tied last week by USC’s Velus Jones.
“We’ve just been okay [on kickoffs],” Kelly said. “We have to be better there, we’ve worked hard on that. Directionally, [NC State is] a team that we’ve got to look to put the ball in tough positions where we can obviously get down there.”
Hines has returned 16 kicks for an average of 23.4 yards with a season-long of 50 yards.
The Irish coverage units will receive a boost — two, actually — this weekend compared to the rout over the Trojans. Junior running back Dexter Williams and senior linebacker Greer Martini rejoined the special teams units during practice this week, recovering from a sprained ankle and a torn meniscus, respectively. As much as Kelly may often project returns from injury with a later-realized optimism, Williams and Martini engaging with the special teams units is as strong an indicator as any that both are at or near enough to 100 percent.
On Williams, Kelly said, “He should be able to impact the game.” Regarding Martini, Kelly kept it simple, “He’ll be playing.”
Fifth-year receiver and Arizona State transfer Cam Smith will most likely not be due to a hamstring strain.
“I’d say he’s doubtful,” Kelly said. “He’s better, but he doesn’t have the burst right now.”
Notre Dame will need all hands to keep the Wolfpack in check on both sides of the ball. Kelly may have offered the week’s most succinct-but-effective summarization of the challenge about to be presented.
“Rightly so, they get a lot of credit for what they’ve done defensively in [senior defensive end Nick] Chubb and [senior defensive tackle B.J.] Hill and a veteran defense that’s really good,” he said. “It’s a physical defense. It creates a lot of problems. Their defensive coordinator does a great job with their scheme and causing a lot of problems.
“The efficiency offensively, they are not getting a lot of possessions per game … and yet they average [3.26] points per possession. That’s extremely efficient in what they do. The efficiency of their offense—obviously everybody knows that they don’t throw picks—but very rarely in college football can you sustain long drives without making mistakes. They sustain them and they score. It’s pretty impressive.
“… They’re one of the top teams in the country. They can play with anybody.”
For context, the Irish offense averages 3.01 points per possession.