Blue and Gold Illustrated

March 2022

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

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BLUEGOLDONLINE.COM MARCH 2022 17 BY PATRICK ENGEL N otre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman dipped into an old connection and former work- place for his first staff hire. The Irish tabbed Brian Mason as their special teams coordinator, reunit- ing Freeman with an old colleague and understudy at Cincinnati, Purdue and Kent State. Mason accepted the job of- fer Jan. 5 and was formally hired Jan. 20. "In designing our staff, I want to sur- round our players with coaches who are excellent teachers, relentless recruiters and intentional in building relation- ships," Freeman said in a statement an- nouncing Mason's hire. "Brian is the best in his field and has a proven track record of producing elite special teams units. "We look forward to him bringing that edge to Notre Dame." The 35-year-old Mason replaces Brian Polian, who left in December for the same position at LSU under Brian Kelly after five seasons with the Irish. Mason served as Cincinnati's special teams coordinator from 2018-21 and joined the Bearcats' staff in 2017. He also coached the "sniper" hybrid linebacker/ safety position on the defense. He spent 2017-20 on the same staff as Freeman, who was Cincinnati's defensive coordi- nator and linebackers coach at the time. Mason's and Freeman's defensive posi- tion coaching responsibilities required them to work closely together. Prior to his 2018 promotion, Mason was Cincinnati's director of recruiting in 2017. Freeman and Mason's connection predates their time with the Bearcats. Mason was a graduate assistant at Purdue from 2013-14 and at Kent State in 2012 when Freeman was the linebackers coach at both schools. He played running back at Division III Den- ison University in Ohio from 2005-06 and was a student assistant there from 2007-08. Mason's special teams units were important pieces of Cincinnati's 44-7 record since 2018 and its College Foot- ball Playoff appearance in 2021. Cincin- nati tied for the national lead in blocked kicks or punts this year, with six. Op- posing punt returners averaged just 2.62 yards per attempt, which ranked ninth lowest. Cincinnati allowed one kick re- turn touchdown and zero punt returns for scores in Mason's tenure. Four-year starting Cincinnati punter James Smith was a 2018 Ray Guy Award finalist and an All-America selection by multiple outlets. The Bearcats were second nationally in net punting aver- age that year. One special teams bugaboo for Cin- cinnati was kicking field goals, though. The Bearcats never made more than 72.7 percent of their field goal attempts the last four years and twice ended the sea- son under 50 percent accuracy. They were last in field goal percentage in 2018 and 128th this season. The kicking is- sues even arose in Cincinnati's 24-13 defeat of Notre Dame this year, with two misses inside 37 yards. At Notre Dame, Mason takes over a successful special teams operation. Under Polian, Notre Dame went three straight years without allowing a kickoff or punt touchdown. It ranked in the top 25 in lowest opponent return average in two of the last three years. The Irish are replacing a pair of three-year specialists in kicker Jonathan Doerer (out of eligi- bility) and punter Jay Bramblett (gradu- ate transfer to LSU). Sophomore-to-be Joshua Bryan and Arkansas State gradu- ate transfer Blake Grupe will compete for Doerer's spot. Incoming freshman Bryce McFerson is the favorite to replace Bramblett. Elsewhere on special teams, primary punt returner Kyren Williams declared for the NFL Draft. Long snapper Mi- chael Vinson is returning for a fifth sea- son. Junior-to-be running back Chris Tyree was the primary kick returner the last two years and ran one back 96 yards for a touchdown in a 41-13 win over Wisconsin Sept. 25. He averaged 26.69 yards on 13 returns. Mason has already reshaped Notre Dame's specialist group in his first month on the job. The Irish snagged Grupe from the transfer portal on Jan. 13. They also landed former Har- vard punter and two-time first-team All-Ivy League selection Jon Sot on Jan. 18. Both are sixth-year seniors, and the latter will be a walk-on. Finally, walk- on long snapper Rino Monteforte from Uniondale (N.Y) Kellenberg Memorial High School flipped his commitment from Buffalo on Jan. 31. ✦ REUNITED Marcus Freeman tabs former colleague Brian Mason to be his special teams coordinator Mason's special teams units played an important role in Cincinnati's 44-7 record since 2018 and its College Football Playoff appearance in 2021. PHOTO COURTESY CINCINNATI) BRIAN MASON BIOGRAPHY PERSONAL INFORMATION Born: Oct. 26, 1986 Hometown: Zionsville, Ind. Education: Denison University (2009, bach- elor's in history and economics), Bluffton Uni- versity (2012, master's in education), Purdue (2014, master's, recreation and sports manage- ment), Ohio State (2016, kinesiology, sports management) Playing career: Denison, 2005-06 (running back) COACHING CAREER 2007-08: Denison, student assistant 2009-11: Bluffton, defensive line coach 2012: Kent State, graduate assistant 2013-14: Purdue, graduate assistant 2015-16: Ohio State, graduate assistant 2017: Cincinnati, recruiting coordinator 2018-21: Cincinnati, special teams coordinator 2022: Notre Dame, special teams coordinator

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