Herein represents the transition from the positional situations with clear futures to the ones with cloudy forecasts. Half of Notre Dame’s special teams, both in positions and in broad task, fared well this season. The other half can best be described as lackluster.
Naturally, the former half — the kickers and punter and their subsequent coverage units — were set entering the season and continue to be that way. The returners and their blockers, however, left an abundance of opportunities unfulfilled and room for future improvement.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The Irish kicking games have been known commodities for some time now. Junior placekicker Justin Yoon, when healthy, has been reliable throughout his career, now the field goal percentage leader in Notre Dame history. Senior punter Tyler Newsome has been consistent, if nothing else.
Freshman Jonathan Doerer was recruited with the specific intention of handling kickoff duties to reduce Yoon’s workload, but preseason practice wore him out a bit, leading Irish coach Brian Kelly to say before the season even started Yoon would have to begin the year kicking off. Kelly expressed anticipation that would not be the case all season.
Juniors C.J. Sanders and Chris Finke were set to handle kickoff and punt returns, respectively, with another year to grow into those roles. At least, in theory.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Yoon and Newsome were about as was expected, and both will be back in 2018. Doerer’s beginning at Boston College was shaky, but by season’s end, he was kicking off without a hitch.
Sanders spent 2017 as an operating definition of “Horseshoes, hand grenades and drive-in movies.” Every time he came close to breaking loose on a kickoff, he would be one blocker or one shredded tackle away from actually doing so. Close may be good for a few extra yards, but it does not result in the explosive plays Notre Dame counts on Sanders to provide.
Finke, meanwhile, got close a total of once all season, in the season’s finale. A week earlier showcased his greatest mistake of the season, quite literally handing the ball to Navy. Aside from that gaffe, Finke’s brazenness was largely harmless, though also lacking effect aside from contributing stress to any Irish fan’s heart.
In both Sanders’ and Finke’s defense, their blocking units hardly held their own. Sanders made the most of the lanes available, but it may as well have been league night at the local alley, and rare was the moment Finke had more than two yards of green grass or turf in front of him upon gathering a punt.
Yoon entered the year 28-of-34 on field goals in his career, good for 82.4 percent. If willing to exclude his opening weekend jitters and their resulting 0-of-2 performance, he went 12-of-14 in the other 11 games, 85.7 percent, including 2-of-2 to keep the Irish in it at Stanford.
Yoon also sent 15-of-51 kickoffs to the end zone for touchbacks, or 29.4 percent. Doerer managed only 25 percent, 7-of-28, but that includes his sloppy debut, going 0-of-3 with one sent out of bounds at Boston College. He was significantly better at home than on the road, launching 6-of-18 kickoffs for touchbacks at Notre Dame Stadium while managing only 1-of-10 on the road. Perhaps this is not a dynamic of the game where the atmosphere is expected to have an effect, but with a freshman, it seems plausible.
Sanders returned 28 kicks for 633 yards, a 22.61 average. Just five of those 28 went for more than 30 yards, highlighted by a 52-yarder against Wake Forest. Removing that handful drops Sanders’ average to a dismal 19.26 yards per return.
Finke returned 24 punts for 156 yards, an average of 6.50 yards, with a 41-yard long at Stanford. He managed just one other return for more than 20 yards, a 23-yarder at North Carolina. Removing those two moments of spark brings Finke’s average down to a paltry 4.18 yards per punt return.
With Newsome, Yoon and Doerer all expected back next year, the kicking game holds no questions.
The return aspect of special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s job, however, needs work. Per Kelly during the week of the season finale, the result could have been worse.
“It’s probably fair to say that we’ve been fair to middling,” Kelly said. “We haven’t been bad, and we haven’t been great.
“Sometimes to be great, you’ve got to have one great game breaker. You’ve got to have somebody that changes the game, and I don’t know that we have that guy right now.”
One can be excused for wondering what Sanders thought when he heard that line and if it played a role in him being loose with the ball, desperately trying to make something happen, the following weekend.
That aside, the question stands out: If the Irish do not have “one great game breaker” right now, who is it going to be moving forward? None of the freshmen who preserved years of eligibility jump to mind as distinct possibilities. Freshman receiver Michael Young never got a shot at it, and he does have a certain degree of the wanted speed/shiftiness combination.
Some will immediately jump to yell for junior running back Dexter Williams. That would be misguided. Williams’ gift comes in acceleration more than raw speed, though he does have a healthy serving of the latter. On a kickoff return, it is raw speed that changes things. On a punt, it is shiftiness.
Others will stump for sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Missing the first month of the 2017 season likely removed him as an option this season, but future thought may be needed, although asking your best playmaker and leading receiver to take on a dozen extra chances each week may become taxing.
Not to be too speculative, but some of this sounds like the job for a young playmaker looking to make an imprint before even getting a chance on offense. Theoretically, it could be someone with top-end speed, even track-type speed. Perhaps a receiver once committed to Notre Dame who is now back on the open recruiting market …