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Will Polian’s return reinvigorate Irish special teams?


Much has rightfully been made of Notre Dame’s new coordinators Chip Long and Mike Elko, on the offensive and defensive sides, respectively. For that matter, Irish coach Brian Kelly spent a good portion of his press conference previewing spring practice instead raving about new director of strength and conditioning Matt Balis.

Nonetheless, one should not—and Kelly has not—overlook new special teams coordinator Brian Polian. Or should that be former-and-new special teams coordinator? Past-and-present special teams coordinator? No matter the phrasing, it is indeed the same Brian Polian who lead the Irish special teams under Charlie Weis from 2005 to 2009.

“In terms of special teams, that was a position that I thought was important to immediately address and upgrade,” Kelly said when introducing his new hires at the end of January. “We were able to hit a home run here with Brian Polian…

“He’ll be charged with developing our entire special teams, and we think that we’re going to be able to provide an incredible opportunity for all those that are going to be playing under his guidance.”

When it comes to special teams coaches, nearly the entire roster usually falls under their guidance. With the possible exception of the starting quarterback, there is a possible role for every player somewhere in the mix of kickoff coverage, punt coverage, field goal block, etc. This is the very reason special teams coaches are often named interim head coaches when necessary, rather than the seemingly more obvious choices of offensive or defensive coordinators. Exhibit A: The Denver Broncos and Joe DeCamillis in week six of this past season.

How important was the hiring of Polian in Kelly’s eyes? As much as Notre Dame may be relying on junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to lead a young offense this fall, Kelly said he would have chosen to hire a special teams coach rather than Tommy Rees as quarterbacks coach. This hypothetical warranted asking as Rees’s hiring only came about due to the NCAA’s presumed approval of a 10th assistant coach, be it for the 2017 or 2018 season.

“It was the first decision that I made coming out of the gates, if you will,” Kelly said. “I wanted to get Brian on, and I wanted special teams to be addressed immediately.”

Taking a look at Polian’s most-recent stint as Nevada’s head coach from 2013 to 2016, Notre Dame could very well expect to see special teams improvement in the coming season(s). Compared to the Irish averages over the same four-year stretch, Polian’s Wolfpack gained 1.6 yards more per punt return and stopped opposing returns 2.12 yards shorter on kickoff returns and 0.75 yards shorter on punt returns.

Notre Dame gained 1.39 more yards per kickoff return, aided by junior C.J. Sanders’ three touchdowns, including two in 2016. Nevada returned one kickoff for a score in the four-year stretch.

Before listing off all those individual statistics for whatever little more they may illustrate, a couple notes on why only those four years and figures are considered:

— Before the 2012 season, the NCAA moved kickoffs up to the 35-yard line, from the 30, and kickoff touchbacks to the 25-yard line, from the 20. Thus, looking at statistics from Polian’s original Notre Dame stretch would be distorted.
— Actual returns theoretically depict coverage on the defensive side and aggressiveness on the offensive side. Kickoff or punt distance may not only be influenced by one particular player, but also by field position itself. Was the punter trying to pin the opposition inside the five-yard line, even though booting from only the near 40? Was the kicker trying to keep the ball away from a dangerous returner and thus drilling line drives out of the end zone?

2016 Nevada: 28 kickoff returns for 571 yards for an average of 20.39 yards per return; 33 kickoffs covered for 627 yards for an average of 19.0 yards allowed per return; nine punt returns for 101 yards and an average of 11.2 yards per return; 13 punts covered for 127 yards and 9.77 yards allowed per return.
2015 Nevada: 31 kickoff returns for 752 yards and a touchdown for an average of 24.26 yards per return; 36 kickoffs covered for 903 yards for an average of 25.08 yards allowed per return; 12 punt returns for 152 yards and an average of 12.67 yards per return; 16 punts covered for 199 yards and 12.44 yards allowed per return.
2014 Nevada: 18 kickoff returns for 389 yards for an average of 21.61 yards per return; 46 kickoffs covered for 918 yards for an average of 19.96 yards allowed per return; 18 punt returns for 163 yards and an average of 9.06 yards per return; 25 punts covered for 195 yards and 7.80 yards allowed per return.
2013 Nevada: 37 kickoff returns for 662 yards for an average of 17.89 yards per return; 43 kickoffs covered for 886 yards for an average of 20.60 yards allowed per return; 16 punt returns for 124 yards and an average of 7.75 yards per return; 24 punts covered for 233 yards and 9.71 yards allowed per return.
Four-year averages: 20.82 yards per kickoff return; 21.10 yards per kickoff covered; 9.82 yards per punt return; 9.67 yards per punt covered.

2016 Notre Dame: 38 kickoff returns for 877 yards and two touchdowns for an average of 23.08 yards per return; 42 kickoffs covered for 935 yards and two touchdowns for an average of 22.26 yards allowed per return; 21 punt returns for 191 yards and an average of 9.10 yards per return; 21 punts covered for 316 yards and two touchdowns and 15.05 yards allowed per return.
2015 Notre Dame: 38 kickoff returns for 825 yards and a touchdown for an average of 21.71 yards per return; 58 kickoffs covered for 1,283 yards for an average of 22.12 yards allowed per return; 27 punt returns for 215 yards and two touchdowns and an average of 7.96 yards per return; 22 punts covered for 194 yards and 8.82 yards allowed per return. (Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story included an inaccurate calculation for the average yards allowed per return. 8.82 is the correct figure.
2014 Notre Dame: 45 kickoff returns for 921 yards for an average of 20.47 yards per return; 26 kickoffs covered for 609 yards and a touchdown for an average of 23.42 yards allowed per return; 23 punt returns for 195 yards and an average of 8.48 yards per return; nine punts covered for 48 yards and 5.33 yards allowed per return.
2013 Notre Dame: 42 kickoff returns for 998 yards for an average of 23.76 yards per return; 40 kickoffs covered for 1,027 yards for an average of 25.68 yards allowed per return; 15 punts returned for 106 yards and an average of 7.07 yards per return; 17 punts covered for 161 yards and 9.47 yards per return.
Four-year averages: 22.21 yards per kickoff return; 23.22 yards per kickoff covered; 8.22 yards per punt return; 10.42 yards per punt covered.

“Inside the Irish” March Madness Pool
Brackets lock when games tip Thursday at 12:15 ET with Notre Dame taking on Princeton. Enter your picks prior to that if you feel like challenging for bragging rights. Until then, allow blissful ignorance to convince you to have faith in the nearly impossible. For these three-plus days, each of us can believe we—or at least our brackets—are special.

Inside the Irish: March Madness Pool

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If you haven’t neglected work yet this week to fill out a bracket, let “Inside the Irish” give you a reason to do so now. Nothing is at stake aside from bragging rights … and a chance at perfection. One in 147 million trillion is attainable, right?

*Insert Lloyd Christmas quote here*

It should be easy enough to join, and isn’t the whole purpose of a bracket to be part of a collective aspiration for excellence, success and perfection? Those three words may not describe the usual discourse around these parts, but that is why aspiration prefaced them.

Remember: Notre Dame tips at 12:15 p.m. ET tomorrow (Thursday). As of this typing, the Irish are seven-point favorites. All bracket entries are due before that game’s start.

Once more, the pertinent link.

Spring scheduling; Videos from Wednesday

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Two of my fellow residents of Alumni Hall once spent a good portion of an August hour scrolling 98 channels of their newly-discovered cable package. They remained on each one long enough to figure out its appropriate acronym, wrote down as much in large writing to be taped on the wall above the television, and then continued past the ESPNs, past the FOX variations, past the whatever-BCs.

When they got to channel No. 99, a litany of profanities echoed down the hallway from their room.

If at any point that year an unsuspecting guest utilized the TV Guide channel rather than the listing on the wall, he or she was shouted out of the room. Naturally, these were the days before a “Guide” button came standard on remotes with readily-available scrolling buttons nearby.

If you sympathize with those two’s pride and plight, then perhaps skip this scheduling note.

Notre Dame is on spring break this week. There are no spring practices until next Wednesday, March 22. From there, the Irish will have a total of 13 practices spread over one month.

A listing of that schedule complete with notations for media availability:

Wed., March 22 – Brian Kelly available after practice
Fri., March 24 – Selected assistant coaches after practice; selected players at 4:30 p.m. ET
Sat., March 25 – Kelly after practice
Wed., March 29 – Selected assistant coaches after practice
Fri., March 31 – Kelly after practice; selected players at 4:30 p.m. ET
Sun., April 2
Wed., April 5 – Selected assistant coaches after practice
Fri., April 7 – Kelly after practice; selected players at 4:30 p.m. ET
Sun., April 9
Wed., April 12 – Selected assistant coaches after practice
Wed., April 19 – Kelly after practice
Fri., April 21 – Selected players at 4:30 p.m. ET
Sat., April 22 – Blue-Gold Game; Kelly and selected players available afterward

Watch ND video from Wednesday
The below video may be only 70 seconds, and it is certainly crafted for best impressions, but a few things can still be gleaned from it. (Editor’s Note: If viewing this video at work, audio is not necessary. It is only an overlaid soundtrack.) (Technical Note: Should the video’s embed not work properly, here is a link directly to it.)

0:07 – As should probably be expected, senior linebacker Nyles Morgan looks physically ready for the season.

0:30 – Nice cut from junior running back Josh Adams. Admittedly, these practices are to the offense’s advantage. This is not necessarily by design. Rather, the fewer players involved, the better the offense will likely look. For example, take a look at any 7-on-7 highlight reel.

0:43 – It would have been a difficult interception for Morgan to make, but with two hands on that pass, he needs to come down with it. After his deflection, though, graduate student tight end Durham Smythe displayed excellent concentration to make the catch.

0:51 – Another nice grab by Smythe, staying in bounds. These may be only two catches in a highlight reel put together after one practice, but Smythe’s two receptions clearly outdid most of the other catches on the day.

A reminder: New offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense typically features tight ends in the passing game, a theoretical change from last season’s Notre Dame passing attack.

Rivals highlights from Wednesday
A longer video from Wednesday’s practice, put together with bits from the session’s first 30 minutes.

“Inside the Irish” March Madness group
Should anyone feel like testing their basketball projection skills against other readers of this space, go for it. The scoring is a custom version of my annual league. 1-2-3-5-7-10 with a bonus added for any upset. Any time a correctly-picked lower seed beats a higher seed, the difference between their seeds will be added to your score.

The group features absolutely no reward beyond possibly some recognition akin to this sentence here.

Friday at 4: Links, and Brian Kelly ‘is the coach this season, like it or not’

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This one has been gnawing at me for a bit now, to be honest. Nevertheless, I refrained.

I’m new in these parts.
Why risk instigation when that is not my intent?
Wouldn’t it be a better usage of my time to go see “Logan” instead of writing an introduction to a link dump? No one will ever know the introduction was even considered.

Then don74 had to come around and tiptoe right up to the point I have long considered. Here we are.

Amid a larger philosophical question about sports, entertainment and predictability, don74 asked a few of his fellow readers, “If you truly believe you know the outcome, why are you so vested in this? If it’s to say I told you so, you already have that. Kelly is 0-13 vs top-12 teams in the last 5 years. In and of itself that’s all that needs to be understood to look at the program. … He IS the coach this season, like it or not.” Editor’s Note: Notre Dame is 0-8 against top-12 teams in the last four years. Five years ago, the Irish topped No. 10 Michigan State and No. 8 Oklahoma amidst a 12-game winning streak you may vaguely remember.

The broader discussion of why we watch sports can be left for another day. I remember the first time I had it—senior year of high school in calculus with a guy who now performs on or near Broadway. His argument for theater certainly held and holds merit.

To the issue at hand, though: Brian Kelly is Notre Dame’s coach in 2017. Let’s approach this abstractly.

I am hosting something of a happy hour tonight. Afterward, a few other Notre Dame alums and I will presumably head to one of those establishments serving adult beverages. In an alternate universe, by the end of the night I may find just enough false bravado to convince some intriguing and age-appropriate female to give me her number with the indication we could have more adult beverages next weekend. I know, it’s unlikely, but maybe in that alternate universe it could happen.

For efficiency’s sake, let’s call this girl Claire.

Know what I will not do? I will not call Claire at 3 a.m., an hour after the bars close. I will not get upset when she does not call me back within 10 minutes. I will not complain bitterly until the start of the Monday workday.

Why won’t I do that? Timing.

If I call Claire on Wednesday or Thursday to set up a chance at drinks Friday, I might get aggravated if I don’t hear back from her before the weekend. That frustration would be understandable. (Then again, there is a reason this scenario is fictional. Claire ignoring my call would be the most-understandable aspect of this hypothetical.)

Why would it be acceptable to express chagrin then? Timing.

Brian Kelly will coach Notre Dame in 2017. Anyone reading Inside the Irish is at least vaguely familiar with his track record, including both the good years (2012, 2015) and the more-recent rough years (2014, 2016). Spending the next six months repeatedly airing any grievances with him informs no one. At the most, it reminds a few. Perhaps angrily tapping away at an iPhone provides some with a therapeutic release. I can grasp the value in that, but at some point, switch to an Android. That alone will bring your life much-needed tranquility.

Claire won’t pick up the phone if I call her five hours before the sun rises Saturday morning, but she might if I try Wednesday evening. The difference is obvious: Timing.

In November or December and even some of January, Kelly’s job status and any complaints therein were reasonable and pertinent topics of conversation. Why are they not now? Timing.

Brian Kelly will coach Notre Dame in 2017. How the Irish fare this season will determine his 2018 job prospects. Nothing expressed here and now will.

Also from the depths of the readers’ comments, glowplugv asked for more context regarding the statistics at the bottom of Thursday’s look at the rover position. Specifically, “You didn’t provide the passes attempted stat to see what the actual balance was between run/pass for those teams. I would assume it was tilted to the run but that would be good to see too.”

A valid point. As one might expect from this site, sacks are considered snaps devoted to the passing game, so in the below breakdowns, sacks factor into the passing side of the distribution, not the rushing.

2016 Temple rushed 535 times and dropped back to pass 432 times.
2016 Georgia rushed 509 times and dropped back to pass 413 times.
2016 Boston College rushed 538 times and dropped back to pass 324 times.
2016 Michigan State rushed 444 times and dropped back to pass 397 times.

For context’s sake: last season Notre Dame rushed 410 times and dropped back to pass 416 times. The nation’s top rushing attack, New Mexico, took to the ground 676 times and dropped back to pass only 191 times.

Two links, coincidentally both from Sports Illustrated
If you have not yet read Pete Thamel’s piece on Brian Kelly’s offseason, it is very much worthwhile. In addition to the tidbits on yoga, omelets and Kelly’s bridal party, Thamel informs us Notre Dame interviewed five strength coaches, three wide receivers coaches, three offensive coordinators and two defensive coordinators before deciding on those hires.

Sports Illustrated also collaborated with to list the best colleges for sports fans to attend. Apparently the ideal sweet spot to enjoy competitive athletics while setting oneself up for a lifetime of high earnings is Stanford. No. 2, however, is Notre Dame, one slot ahead of Michigan.

Te’o a free agent
Personally, former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o reaching free agency had completely skirted my knowledge until an Adam Schefter tweet crossed my screen. I pass it along in case it evaded any of your purviews, as well, on the off-chance you may wonder where Te’o lands next.

A piece of useless trivia
Chuck Norris’s real name is Carlos. You probably don’t care, but I learned this Wednesday night. More than anything, what amazes me is that this is not commonly-known. During the run of Chuck Norris memes and one-liners, how did Carlos never get into the mix? The internet missed an opportunity, there.

Lastly, I did go see “Logan.” It might have been the best usage of a Tuesday night since I was an undergrad regular at karaoke with $2 double rail drinks. Speaking of drinks, this posted Friday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET. You know what to do.

Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow

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Since Mike Elko was hired as Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator in mid-December, speculation about his favorite toy has both hindered and furthered any conversation about the Irish defense. The uncertainty of how Elko would deploy a rover at Notre Dame limited the discussion, yet that same uncertainty led to enough speculation to allow the discourse to meander in circles unabated.

Wednesday’s first spring practice provided the first hard data about the safety/linebacker hybrid. Well, at least it provided as much of a glimpse as the first practice of spring football can.

Many expected that initial peek to feature senior Drue Tranquill. Instead, junior Asmar Bilal had the opportunity to impress Elko and Irish coach Brian Kelly. Tranquill may get his chance soon, though.

“I really think it’s going to be a week-to-week matchup situation,” Kelly said. “You’re going to look at the teams that could stress that position with a slot receiver versus a tight end …

“I think what you’ll find at the rover position is there is some versatility based upon the opponent.”

At 6-foot-2, 229 pounds, Bilal could feature prominently against physical, run-based teams.

“We think Asmar is a guy that physically can run with most detached or tight ends or backs coming out,” Kelly said. “In the role we’re going to ask the rover to match up. We’re not going to ask him to run vertically or play corner routes. We think [Bilal] is a physical guy at the point of attack, a guy that is agile enough to play in space, yet not put him in a position where he’d have to play more of a safety in that positon right now.”

When the time comes for a more coverage-based rover, that may be when Tranquill steps forward. If not him—perhaps he is deemed too necessary at safety—sophomores Spencer Perry and D.J. Morgan both have experience in coverage, as a cornerback and a safety by trade, respectively. Neither is primed to crack the depth chart at those positions, but could readily provide some depth at rover. Come summer and fall, incoming freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, also a safety, will nearly certainly join the grouping. His late recruitment came about largely because Elko sees the consensus three-star recruit as a prime candidate at rover.

Theoretically, the rover provides the defense more flexibility than a traditional linebacker. Sure, Tranquill may be preferable in coverage to Bilal, but Bilal should still be more serviceable in that role than junior linebackers Te’von Coney or Josh Barajas. Similarly, Tranquill would presumably provide more run support than sophomore safety Jalen Elliott. In an era when offenses thrive on forcing defenses into mismatched packages, the rover can alter some of that algebra.

Part of Kelly’s explanation for Bilal’s moment as the rover debutante hinged on the first third of Notre Dame’s 2017 schedule, pointing to “some power run teams in the first month of the season.”

As always around these parts, the below rushing stats do not include sacks or the yards lost via sack as the NCAA statistics do.

2016 Temple: 2,720 rushing yards on 535 attempts for 31 touchdowns and an average of 5.08 yards per carry; the Owls threw for 3,324 yards.
2016 Georgia: 2,632 rushing yards on 509 attempts for 18 touchdowns and an average of 5.17 yards per carry; the Bulldogs threw for 2,515 yards.
2016 Boston College: 2,122 rushing yards on 538 attempts for 16 touchdowns and an average of 3.94 yards per carry; the Eagles threw for 1,869 yards.
2016 Michigan State: 2,222 rushing yards on 444 attempts for 14 touchdowns and an average of 6.13 yards per carry; the Spartans threw for 2,668 passing yards.

Bilal’s physicality very well may be necessary in the coming September, especially against Georgia’s vaunted rushing attack. Bilal getting an extended run at rover makes sense even against Boston College. The Eagles’ offense may have been paltry in 2016, but any successes it did enjoy came on the ground.

For context’s sake, last season Notre Dame rushed for 2,123 yards on 410 attempts for 18 touchdowns and an average of 5.18 yards per carry. The Irish threw for 3,051 yards. This paragraph of statistics is not presented to start a rush:pass distribution debate, nor is it to insinuate Notre Dame was a power-rushing offense. Rather, it is simply an offense most readers of Inside the Irish are presumably familiar with.

For further context’s sake, Bob Davie’s New Mexico led the NCAA last season in rushing yards per game. (That statistic did not account for the NCAA’s inclusion of sacks, but given how few the Lobos suffered, they likely would have still led. The following statistics have had sacks’ results removed from their totals.) New Mexico rushed for 4,621 yards on 676 attempts for 48 rushing touchdowns and an average of 6.84 yards per carry. The Lobos threw for 1,389 yards.