Bye week snapshot: Special Teams


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.

Bye week snapshot: Offensive line

Sep 12, 2015; Charlottesville, VA, USA; The Notre Dame Fighting Irish offense lines up against the Virginia Cavaliers defense in the second quarter at Scott Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
USA Today Sports

Entering the season, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line had all the ingredients to be one of the more dominant units in recent Notre Dame memory. A star-in-the-making in left tackle Ronnie Stanley. A fifth-year veteran and two-time captain in center Nick Martin. Add in former high-profile recruits like Quenton Nelson and Steve Elmer, along with promising tackle Mike McGlinchey, and there was plenty of reason for optimism.

Expected to be the strength of this offense, the line hasn’t disappointed.

The Irish ground game is one of the best and most explosive in the country. The Irish are seventh in the country in yards per play, and averaging 38.3 points a game, another Top 15 unit.

We’ve seen the time this line has given young quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer to throw and the holes they’ve opened for C.J. Prosise. But with no true statistics to calculate how this group is playing, we’ve turned to ProFootballFocus’s snap count and grading system, our best look at a progress report for the six main contributors along the offensive line.

The MVP: Ronnie Stanley

It shouldn’t a surprise that Ronnie Stanley grades out as the top performer along the offensive line. What might be a surprise is how badly penalties have impacted his overall rating. Stanley is head and shoulders above every other blocker when it comes to pass protection. Only Quenton Nelson and Nick Martin edge him in the run game. But penalties have killed his grade.

The senior potential first-rounder knows he needs to clean up the mental mistakes, some penalties attributed to the different cadences between Zaire and Kizer. But with some good defenses still on the schedule, Stanley has an opportunity to finish strong and play dominant football.


Needs a better second half: Steve Elmer

While I won’t take these ratings as bible, it doesn’t take much to notice the slow start to the season by Steve Elmer. The junior is in his third season in the starting lineup, and even though he’s found his home at guard it appears he’s still making too many mistakes.

Elmer’s overall grade is negative mostly based on two tough games—the season opener against Texas and, maybe surprisingly, some struggles against Navy. But Elmer’s held down his starting position, playing the most snaps of any starter on the line, matched by Mike McGlinchey’s 493 plays.

The major deficiencies have come in run blocking. We’ve seen Elmer get his body out of position, too often swinging and missing on a block in tight quarters. Those end up being play-ruiners, and if the junior can clean those up he’ll likely help power the interior ground game, especially against strong rush defenses like Temple, Pitt, Boston College and Stanford, all Top 40 teams against the run.


Early Season Surprise: Quenton Nelson

I knew Quenton Nelson was tough. But I didn’t think he’d immediately step into the starting lineup and grade out as Notre Dame’s best run blocker. Nelson’s grades are buoyed by a dominant performance against UMass, but the fact he’s at the top of the stat sheet here is impressive. I also like the fact that he was able to come in and gut out 44 snaps against USC after suffering an ankle sprain. He didn’t earn a positive grade, but the Irish ground game wore down the Trojans late in that ball game.


Bye week snapshot: Wide Receivers

Chris Milton, Will Fuller

If you’re looking for an appropriate image to associate with the wide receiving corps from the “first half” of the season (I know it’s been seven games), take your pick:

  • There’s Will Fuller running by the Texas Longhorn secondary.
  • Or Will Fuller breaking Virginia fans’ hearts.
  • Or perhaps Fuller running three strides behind USC’s fastest man, Adoree Jackson.

One of the deepest and most athletic groups of wide receivers in school history hasn’t let Everett Golson’s transfer or Malik Zaire‘s injury slow them down. And that’s mostly because of the excellence from Fuller and the emergence of senior Chris Brown as a capable No. 2 receiver.

With five games remaining and DeShone Kizer getting more and more comfortable in the job, there’s plenty of opportunities for big games ahead. Let’s take a look at where the Irish sit and hand out some kudos.



Baddest dude on the block: Will Fuller

Any first-half All-American team without Fuller on it feels incomplete. It also doesn’t appreciate what makes Fuller the offensive weapon that he’s become. The junior isn’t sneaking up on anybody this season, not after 15 touchdowns in 2014. But even with chaos at quarterback and an offense more geared to the running game, Fuller is still impacting football games—on pace to better last year’s historic season, even if he’ll be doing it in 17 less touches.

The junior has cleaned up the major deficiencies in his game, and has significant cut his drops this season (though the rain at Clemson got the better of him). And his confidence against USC has to have Irish fans feeling even better—Fuller wanted the challenge against Adoree Jackson and relished the opportunity to make game-changing plays against a cornerback most expected to be his athletic superior.

There’s room for improvement still. The screen game—last year’s bread and butter—hasn’t taken off. There’s also more downfield opportunities, Kizer taking a shot on 50-50 balls deep is never a bad gamble.

Finding a way to slow down the Irish offense usually starts with defenses committed to stuffing the run. That means less defenders downfield, a conundrum that Brian Kelly knows how to exploit. Let’s see if Fuller can put some separation in the record books by continuing his consistency and doubling his touchdown total.


Most Improved: Chris Brown

That the Irish coaching staff has turned Chris Brown into a legit No. 2 wide receiver is a credit to Mike Denbrock’s coach and Brown’s ability to harness his skills. Long talked about as one of the best athletes at the position, Brown seemed to be giving his best performances on the practice field.

That’s turned this season with Brown showing good hands, the ability to move the chains and a ball magnet—his 27 catches are nearing his 2014 season total and he’s already doubled his touchdowns. The second half of the season could give Brown some downfield opportunities, too.


Area for Improvement: Holding on to the football. 

For all the playmakers on this team, one constant source of attention needs to be holding onto the football. We’ll give the drops a pass after the Clemson monsoon. But both Brown and Torii Hunter Jr. have lost fumbles inside the 10-yard line, turning scores into turnovers because they were trying to do too much.

Interestingly, we saw the reaction from the Irish players and coaching staff, thanks to behind-the-scenes footage on both Showtime and The staff was both firm (BK serving mostly as the bad cop) and encouraging (Denbrock acting as the good one), knowing that the psyche of this group needs to stay confident—because the personnel at this position has too much talent to go into a funk.

We saw Corey Robinson conquer his demons last week with a huge catch for the go-ahead touchdown. We’ll see Hunter and Brown get their shots in the coming weeks as well. But with quick screens and jet sweeps not going off the play sheet anytime soon, keeping the turnovers down, especially inside the scoring area, is critical.


Pay no attention: CJ Sanders and Equanimeous St. Brown

The two freshmen really haven’t made a dent in the stat sheet. But last week we saw their value on Notre Dame’s special teams pay immediate dividends. The most obvious was St. Brown’s block of a USC punt that Amir Carlisle scooped up for the score. St. Brown jumped so high he blocked the kick with his jersey number. In the coming weeks, expect to see St. Brown get another look at receiver, even if it means taking Brown or Corey Robinson off the field.

Sanders impact on special teams has been one of the below-the-radar successes of the season. On his 14 punt returns, Sanders is averaging 10.1 an attempt. Put that into context with these elite return men.

CJ Sanders – 14 punt returns, 142 yards, 10.14 yards per, 1 TD
Adoree Jackson – 11 returns, 112 yards, 10.18 yards per, 0 TDs
Jabrill Peppers – 14 returns, 144 yards, 10.29 yards per, 0 TDs

It’s only a matter of time before Sanders breaks a kickoff return, especially with some of the blocking wrinkles the Irish are displaying.

The tall and small combo of St. Brown and Sanders have been game-changers in special teams. They’ve also shown future freshman the best way to contribute, especially with a depth chart that’s as stacked as the receiving corps.


Bye week snapshot: Tight end

Alize Jones getty
Getty Images

Notre Dame knew it was rebooting the tight end position this fall. But with an early-season injury to Durham Smythe, Scott Booker‘s position group has had to rely on a converted defensive tackle, two players who had yet to see a college football field and Tyler Luatua, who served mostly as a blocker in ten games as a freshman.

That’s not to say there isn’t talent at the position. We’ve seen as much from freshman Alizé Jones. But there are limited opportunities. With Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise playing like stars, there are only so many footballs for the rest of a talented roster.

Through seven games, it’s clear the tight end position is still getting settled. So let’s take a look at a position group that’ll likely evolve throughout the season’s final five weeks.

Emerging Player: Alizé Jones.

You likely wouldn’t have been surprised if I told you that Jones was leading the tight ends in catches. But maybe a bit surprised if you considered he had almost double the amount of the rest of the position—all while being mostly anonymous this year.

At just nine catches and 117 yards, Jones is still finding his way. He’s been close to a few game-changing plays—a nifty one-handed grab was close to getting pulled off and tight coverage turned a near touchdown into an incompletion last weekend.

Jones has one freshman mistake on his resume—a fumble before halftime against Georgia Tech that didn’t end up costing the Irish—evidence that he’s still showing some of his youth. But with attention likely pulled the way of Prosise and Fuller over these final five weeks, Jones should have opportunities in space. Now it’ll be up to him to capitalize on them, especially if DeShone Kizer calls his number.

Biggest Surprise: Chase Hounshell

If you’d have told me that Chase Hounshell’s six games were the most he’s played since his freshman season as a backup defensive lineman, I’d have thought you were nuts. But the decision to let Hounshell stay with the team and transition to tight end has paid off in a big way, with the physical fifth-year player healthy after multiple shoulder injuries and capable of serving as an attached, in-line blocker.

Down the stretch, the Irish will likely need to ride the running game to continue to win football games. And with Smythe out and Luatua still showing some inconsistencies, Hounshell’s return is one of the more unlikely stories, and a testament to his willingness to endure through some terrible injury luck.

More to Come: Nic Weishar

I’m not sure how the snaps will break down for Weishar. But the sophomore tight end earned a lot of respect from Brian Kelly during fall camp, and even if he’s off to a slow start this season, Weishar might be able to earn some chances by staying consistent in practice.

That could come in two tight end sets. It could come in the red zone, where Weishar ate up Irish defenders. And if Jones suffers the slide that comes with a lot of freshmen as the season wears on, Weishar could be the one to capitalize on those opportunities.

While he doesn’t have the athleticism that Jones shows, Weishar is a natural catching the football and using his body as a shield. After spending last season on the scout team with Kizer, they could get an opportunity this November to put that chemistry to work on the field.


Bye week snapshot: Running Backs

C.J. Prosise

When Tarean Folston went down on his third carry of the season, few expected a position with zero career running back carries to become one of the most dominant offensive weapons in Notre Dame history.

But C.J. Prosise was the next man in. And after making the transition to the backfield during spring practice, Prosise became Notre Dame’s feature back, with Folston out, Greg Bryant transferred and only freshman Josh Adams and Dexter Williams left.

During his first seven games at the position, Prosise has used his game-breaking speed and surprising power to make himself one of the nation’s top weapons. And in doing so, he’s on a crash-course for Notre Dame’s record books.

Let’s take a look at the backfield.


Undisputed MVP: C.J. Prosise

Prosise is the only running back in college football with over 900 yards rushing and 200 yards receiving. And if it weren’t for the Irish calling off the dogs early in a few games to get Prosise some rest he’d be at 1,000 yards as he enjoys fall break and the bye week.

There’s still room to grow in Prosise’s game—especially in short yardage and inside running situations. But watching the 220-pounder routinely bust through tackles in the open field and continue to score long-range touchdowns, it’s amazing that Prosise is actually outplaying the lofty expectations Brian Kelly set for him when most thought he was just publicly challenging Folston and Bryant during spring practice.


Pleasant Surprise: Josh Adams

That Adams, a three-star prospect coming off a major high school knee injury, is actually leading Notre Dame in yards per carry is amazing. That he’s shown the ability to process and understand the Irish offense, and earn an opportunity in pass blocking situations, is an even larger testament to his football IQ.

Granted, there’s no other veteran option to be on the field. But Adams possesses the long speed that makes Prosise dangerous and runs hard and downhill. He’s also another datapoint on the “recruiting stars don’t matter as long as Notre Dame’s staff IDs you early” train, a bandwagon I’d like to see more Irish fans jump on.


Room for Improvement: Short-Yardage Victories

Yes, DeShone Kizer is a 235-pounder. But he shouldn’t be Notre Dame’s short-yardage running option, and currently he’s the guy with the ball in his hands on 3rd and 4th-and-short. (Not to mention two-point plays.) That’s less of an indictment on Notre Dame’s backfield and more a strategic preference to get additional blocking numbers, but it’s still an area of concern at a position that’s really over-performing.

For as explosive as Prosise has been, he’s done most of his best work running on the perimeter. Still young in his career as a runner, there’s certainly no reason why his vision in the trenches won’t improve. (We saw him pull off a great run to get to the end zone against USC, knifing through a hole and then spinning back for the touchdown.) He also iced the Navy game by allowing his blocks to set up on a slow-developing counter.

But with a difficult schedule of defenses coming up, earning the tough yards will be crucial.