2020 Notre Dame Football Preview

Digital Edition

Blue & Gold Illustrated: 2020 Notre Dame Football Preview

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Page 115 of 163

114 ✦ BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED 2020 FOOTBALL PREVIEW SPECIALISTS N otre Dame's 33-9 Camping World Bowl victory over Iowa State last December highlighted the effectiveness and rela- tive consistency of the Fighting Irish special teams for the second year in a row. • After Notre Dame began the game with a three-and-out series on offense, safety Alohi Gilman forced a fumble on the punt return that wide receiver Chase Claypool recovered to set up the game's initial score. • Junior kicker Jonathan Doerer converted all four of his field goal attempts, including one from 51 yards. • Finally, after that first Irish punt, the Cyclones began nine of their 11 series on offense at or inside their 25-yard line, and a 10th at its 33. Those are the type of "win" plays on spe- cial teams that quietly get overlooked or overshadowed by the more stimulating — but rare — highlight reels of kickoff or punt returns. The No. 24 placement in special teams efficiency two years in a row is a significant upgrade from the "do no harm" objective of the kicking game when current coordinator Brian Polian arrived in 2017. During Notre Dame's miserable 4-8 campaign in 2016, special teams efficiency ranked 81st, and major snafus in that area of the game were significant in contributing to at least five of the defeats. Consequently, the first objective of the kicking games was not to lose games rather than help win them. In Polian's first season (2017), there was some marginal upgrade while ascending to a still modest No. 61 in special teams efficiency. Then in 2018 it vaulted all the way to No. 24 despite three major gaffes — al- lowing two kickoff returns for scores and a blocked punt that set up a touchdown — that kept Michigan, Pitt and Northwestern in the contest late in the fourth quarter during Notre Dame's run to the College Football Playoff. In 2019, there were no such major blunders. The most notable were trying to recover the blocked punt early at Michigan that back- fired, Virginia surprising Notre Dame with an onside kick in the second half and recovering the ball near midfield (although the Cavaliers did not end up with points), and a mental mistake on a kickoff versus Virginia Tech that led to starting at the 1-yard line. But there were also more positive game- changing plays on special teams, highlighted in the regular-season finale at Stanford when freshman defensive end Isaiah Foskey blocked a Cardinal punt that was recovered at the Stanford 1-yard line and ignited a run of 38 consecutive points by the Irish after having trailed 17-7. Meanwhile, first-year starters Doerer at kicker and freshman punter Jay Bramblett, both of whom had to replace record-setting four-year starters in Justin Yoon and Ty- ler Newsome, respectively, performed with aplomb. While preventing damage on special teams always remains an object for any foot- ball team, doing some of their own on the opposition often is the difference between play that is solid or championship level. ✦ GETTING THEIR KICKS, AND MORE Special teams continue advancing beyond damage control Senior Jonathan Doerer converted 17 of 20 field goals (85.0 percent) last year, including an exceptional 7 of 9 (77.8 percent) from beyond 40 yards. PHOTO BY ANDRIS VISOCKIS

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