Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 8, 2018*

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 11 of 55

12 OCT. 8, 2018 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED UNDER THE DOME A proverbial "kick in the pants" in the opener versus Michigan seems to have kick-started Notre Dame's spe- cial teams into improved coverage and returns in the ensuing three games. After the Wolverines' Ambry Thomas returned a mis- directed Irish kickoff for a 99-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 21-10 in what would be a 24-17 Notre Dame win, the special teams kick coverage has vastly improved because of at least two reasons. One, sophomore kickoff man Jonathan Doerer — the heir to placekicking duties next season when Justin Yoon graduates — booted nine of his last 15 kickoffs versus Vanderbilt and Wake For- est for touchbacks (as were the final two kickoffs by Yoon after Michigan's big return). Two, of the nine re- turns fielded by Ball State, Vanderbilt and Wake For- est, they averaged only 15.1 yards, and none longer than 20. Especially notable was Wake Forest's Greg Dortch, one of the nation's premier return men, had three kick returns that to- taled only 47 yards (15.7 average). Through four games, Notre Dame also outgained the opposition 83-36 on punt returns, highlighted by senior Chris Finke's 52- yard scamper — second longest in the nine-year Brian Kelly era — versus Wake Forest in which the blocking was textbook. "We leveraged players and had great effort," Kelly said of the return. "I don't want to oversimplify it be- cause there's a lot of tacti- cal work that goes in there, but if you don't have effort in special teams, you don't have special teams, period. And we're getting great ef- fort there. "So many teams are going away from the spread punt and going into wall punt, which brings everybody in. You need guys that are great effort guys." The effort has been two-fold. One has been the in- clusion of walk-ons on various units where they have combined competence with a burning desire to be on the field. This has included senior linebacker Robert Regan on both kick and punt returns, senior lineman Brandon Hutson on kick coverage and punt returns, fifth-year senior Keenan Sweeney on kick returns and junior cornerback Temitope Agoro on punt coverage and punt returns. Two has been the mixture of starters such as Drue Tranquill and Alohi Gilman on at least two of the units to demonstrate that special teams are not a respite from game action, but a vital component to field position and momentum. "When you've got a guy like Alohi on those teams who brings so much energy to our defense and he's run- ning down there with great effort," Kelly said, "it's easy for me to turn to John Smith and say, 'Listen, John, get your butt moving. That guy is playing 90 snaps.' "It kind of sells it pretty good from that perspective when you have guys like that." Under second-year spe- cial teams coordinator Brian Polian, the emphasis has been to have more im- pact after going by more of a "do no harm" dicta in 2017 following what might have been the worst special teams campaign in Notre Dame annals during the 2016 campaign. The week prior to Finke's punt return, sophomore re- ceiver Michael Young had a 48-yard kick return at a critical juncture against the Commodores. Junior wide receiver Chase Claypool, senior rover Asmar Bilal, junior safety Jalen Elliott and s o p h o m o re B u c k l i n e - backer Jordan Genmark Heath are regulars on three of the four special teams units, while other start- ers such as Gilman and Tranquill join senior safety Nicco Fertitta, junior safety Devin Studstill, junior line- backer Jonathan Jones and fifth-year senior tight end Nic Weishar on two of the teams. Freshmen Bo Bauer at linebacker and TaRiq Bracy at cornerback also have become multiple unit performers on special teams. "We're seeing that growth much more, understand- ing how to leverage the football," Kelly said. "Chase Claypool is leveraging the football so much better, guys really understand their roles a lot better. "Sometimes you don't get enough reps and it's just a learning curve. … We're further along in the season and we're getting a lot more guys in those leverage points." Special Teams Striving For More Impact Sophomore Michael Young's 48-yard kickoff return versus Vanderbilt was one of a handful of impact plays that occurred on special teams for the Irish in the early part of the season. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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