Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 31, 2016

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

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16 OCT. 31, 2016 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY MATT JONES T here's never enough time to work on special teams during the season. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly knows that better than anyone. He's watched the Irish spe‑ cial teams fall apart in every way possible this season, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde phase of the game that has cost Notre Dame dearly. If the Irish were a dominant team offensively and defensively, the poor special teams could be overlooked. But their inconsistent efforts have been another black eye on a disap‑ pointing season. "I want to eradicate the big plays that we're giving up, because I think w e ' v e h a d d y ‑ namic plays from a special teams standpoint," Kelly said. "Our cover‑ age teams have been really good other than the mis‑ takes that we seem to make, and they're catastrophic. They're big." Take these special teams blunders for example: • In the 36‑28 loss to Michigan State Sept. 17, a holding penalty by freshman safety Jalen Elliott on the game's opening kickoff negated a 100‑yard return for a touchdown by sophomore receiver C.J. Sanders. • In that same game, a Michigan State punt bounced off the leg of sophomore wide‑ out Miles Boykin, which was recov‑ ered by the Spar‑ tans. The miscue led to a score that ignited a run of 36 straight points by MSU. • Also against the Spartans, Notre Dame gave up a two‑point con‑ version on a fake extra point and sophomore safety Nicco Fertitta was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on a punt return. • In a 38‑35 loss to Duke, Notre Dame allowed a 96‑yard kick return for a touchdown by Shaun Wilson, a momentum shift after the Irish had taken a 14‑0 lead. • Also against Duke, sophomore kicker Justin Yoon missed a 42‑yard field goal. • And in a 10‑3 loss to North Caro‑ lina State Oct. 8, junior Tyler New‑ some had his fourth‑quarter punt blocked and returned for a touch‑ down. It was the lone touchdown of the game and wound up being the winning margin. Even in wins, the specials teams have had blemishes. Yoon missed an extra point and the Irish had too many men on the field for a punt against Nevada. Against Syracuse, Notre Dame allowed a 74‑yard punt return late in the first half that set up a touchdown. Many of Notre Dame's young players — including most of its de‑ fensive backs — are heavily involved on special teams. That won't change, Kelly said. "So moving forward is to still have the athletes on that team, still get the quality players that are on that team and continue to do the things that we're doing other than some of the crazy, big plays we've given up," the coach explained. "We have to eradi‑ cate the big plays that we've given up in special teams." There have been bright spots. Notre Dame has blocked two extra points this season — one against Texas to tie the game late and an‑ other against Syracuse. Sanders also returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Syracuse. To fix some of the problems, Kelly said he's taking some steps he's never done before. The Irish are taking more time pre‑practice to work on special teams, teaching the basics of each unit. He's putting offensive players through the team's tackling circuit during practice. Overseeing that process is fifth‑ year special teams coach Scott Booker and special teams analyst Marty Bi‑ agi, who's in his first year at Notre Dame after a one‑year stint as the cornerbacks coach at South Dakota in 2015. Biagi is a former punter and kicker at Marshall and has helped ease the burden on Booker. "I wanted somebody off the field that could really study that realm," Kelly said of Biagi. "Scott also is the tight ends coach and recruits, where Marty could focus his time on quality control within special teams, look‑ ing at our schemes, checking them, making sure that there are no flaws within what we're doing and also keeping an eye on how we can better advance ourselves. "That was the support I was look‑ ing for from him." Senior linebacker James Onwualu knows a thing or two about special teams. The former wide receiver was a mainstay on spe‑ cial teams early in his career, and even though his defensive role has forced him off the field for most spe‑ cial teams this season, he still knows what it takes to be successful. "Guys like it just because of the freedom of it," Onwualu said. "It's one play to go all in and to make an impact on field position and give the other team an idea of what the iden‑ tity of our team is. "We just need to continue to build that importance. That's the third aspect of our team — offense, de‑ fense and special teams. So continu‑ ing to push that and practice that hard is important, especially in the younger guys." Onwualu said the "minor changes" in the way Notre Dame practices spe‑ cial teams boils down to players be‑ ing more physical at the end of the play. "Lot of times we have certain reps that save our legs, and we also have certain reps that give us a good look," Onwualu said. "And our scout guys do a great job giving us a good look on all those special teams." ✦ WEAK LINK Notre Dame's special teams are under the microscope after an uneven performance the first six games The Irish have made numerous game-changing mis- cues on special teams, including sophomore C.J. Sanders' 100-yard kickoff for a touchdown versus Michigan State being negated by a holding penalty. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA "WE HAVE TO ERADICATE THE BIG PLAYS THAT WE'VE GIVEN UP IN SPECIAL TEAMS." HEAD COACH BRIAN KELLY

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