Pair of game-winners steady Doerer in uneven final season at Notre Dame

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When kicker Jonathan Doerer decided to return to Notre Dame for a fifth year, he had one game ball to his name.

In a year he was never supposed to have, Doerer has added two more game balls thanks to a pair of game-winning kicks against Florida State and Virginia Tech.

“That’s one of the things that’s helped me throughout the year,” Doerer said of the initial game-winning kick in the season opener. “It’s like a little bit of storage, so to speak, that you can kind of count on those good moments when everything starts to get tough.”

Doerer’s season has contained plenty of highlight-reel content, but it hasn’t come without its challenges.

One such obstacle: The fifth-year kicker has been dealing with a groin injury that affects his kicking leg, which reached its worst leading up to Notre Dame’s idle week a month ago. That stretch included the Virginia Tech matchup, which featured the second of the game-winners. When it came time for that kick, Doerer said he wasn’t thinking about the injury.

“Adrenaline is a beautiful thing,” he said. “When you’re out there in those moments, you’re not thinking too much.”

Doerer said Tuesday he has now regained strength, but he still feels “probably not quite 100 percent” and has continued to work with the training staff. 

On field goals this season, Doerer is 13-for-17 (76.5 percent). To break that down by distance, he is a perfect 5-for-5 from inside 30 yards. He has missed two of five kicks from inside 40 yards and missed one of five attempts from 40 to 49 yards. In kicks over 50 yards, Doerer is 1-for-2.

Doerer’s overall kicking percentage has seen an increase from last year, when he was 15-for-23 (65.2 percent) on the season. His junior year, he was 17-for-20 (85 percent), which included three field goals against USC, earning him that initial game ball.

Kicking statistics might seem relatively simple, but they can’t reach the same level of depth as an evaluation from the lens of a seasoned kicker. Dan Orner, Doerer’s Charlotte-based kicking coach, said he likes to focus on what happens after a missed kick. Orner compared a miss to an interception thrown by a quarterback or a drop by a receiver, albeit under more scrutiny due to the unique nature of being a kicker.

“You’re going to miss, and the best thing is that it hasn’t come in bunches,” Orner said. “It’s come one kick at a time, and he’s made adjustments.”

In a short-term perspective, that benefits Doerer’s performance as Notre Dame’s starting kicker. Long term, that ability to make adjustments could hold significant weight in evaluations of his NFL future.

“He’s not scrambling. He’s not a deer in the headlights,” Orner said. “And from all the conversations that I’ve had with NFL scouts about him, the biggest thing that continues to come up is when the lights are on him, he continues to make big kicks.”

Lights or even lasers. 

The game-winner at Virginia Tech contained both. Irish head coach Brian Kelly could be seen pleading with the officials to take care of a laser pointer being shined near Doerer from the crowd as Notre Dame lined up for the potential winner. Eventually, the efforts were given up, at Doerer’s request.

“I don’t know if he’s got blood in his veins,” Kelly said after Doerer won the game. “I was nervous on the sideline. I was trying to get the guy to stop with the laser. Finally, Jon says, ‘Coach, let’s just kick it.’ …

“He’s done that time-in and time-out. The moment is not too big for him. He loves those opportunities and he relishes them, and he’s been really good at them.”

Orner said the most significant change following a game-winner is the resulting confidence boost, which helps eliminate any doubts that could prove costly to a kicker taking the field. Doerer’s case was no different.

“When I’m talking to him, there’s no wavering in his plan,” Orner said. “There’s no second-guessing in the steps.”

During the season, Doerer and Orner check in with each other every week or two. When Doerer returns home to Charlotte, he reaches out to his coach about training with a group of other kickers. Participants have included a slew of college counterparts, as well as Washington Football Team kicker Joey Slye and Los Angeles Rams kicker Matt Gay

So, what would it take for Doerer to join their ranks in the NFL?

According to Orner, those conversations are nuanced and contain a variety of factors — the variable weather in Indiana, for example, which Orner points out bolsters a kicker’s résumé and appeals to NFL scouts. Maturity and consistency are two others.

“He’s right in the hunt. He’s on a lot of people’s lists,” Orner said. “From an NFL scout standpoint, the half-dozen teams that I talk to on a regular basis all have him in the mix on the shortlist.”

Doerer intends to pursue a football career beyond Notre Dame, but the thought remains just that: beyond this season. For now, the fifth-year kicker is focusing on the two regular-season games left on the schedule. The need for a game-winner in either of those matchups would come as a surprise, but Doerer said he never minds a day full of kicking extra points, like the most recent Irish win, when he simply kicked four extra points at Virginia.

Doerer may have tripled his game-ball count in this extra year available only because of the pandemic waiver, but those have never been his concern. When he leaves South Bend, their futures still won’t be.

“That’s something for my mom to figure out what to do,” Doerer said. “I’m not buying the glasses. That’s all her.”

A senior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well, just as she did throughout 2020.