When the average Notre Dame fan is asked to assess Notre Dame’s special teams, it’s usually a succinct two-word reply: “It stinks.”
Kyle Brindza was an asset for the Irish special teams throughout the year, and he also had to help on four tackles for the poor kick coverage unit.
However, that’s painting with too broad a brush. In junior Kyle Brindza, Notre Dame’s special teams possessed one of the nation’s elite specialists, one of seven players in the nation this year who handled field goals, punts and kickoffs.
His 43 field goals the past two years are a good news/bad news proposition. The good news is Brindza is as clutch as they come, helping win about 10 games with his field-goal kicking. Of his 15 field goal attempts in the fourth quarter or overtime the past two years, 14 were converted. The lone miss was inconsequential during a 28-6 win over Temple.
The bad news is Notre Dame has had to rely on Brindza almost too much because of a red-zone offense that has been ineffective at producing more touchdowns. That’s not his fault, though. He consistently delivers, including an NCAA record-tying five field goals in a bowl on an extremely slippery field during the 29-16 Pinstripe Bowl victory versus Rutgers.
The Lou Holtz years (1986-96) are understandably exalted for their special teams excellence, specifically in the return and coverage aspects. However, it’s forgotten that field-goal kicking was a problem most of the 1990s and into the Charlie Weis era (2005-09) when he had what he referred to as “Gong Show” auditions for kickers. The popular statement for more than a decade was, “How is it a school like Notre Dame can’t find a top kicker?”
The Irish have had one with Brindza, who also received the game ball for his tremendous punting in the 17-13 victory versus Michigan State that kept the Spartans at bay. He received similar accolades for his punting in the hard fought 23-13 win over BYU. Meanwhile nearly half of his 75 kickoffs were touchbacks (35) while not getting leg weary or sometimes kicking in inclement conditions.
With Notre Dame having one of the nation’s premier "triple threats" at kicker, punter and kickoffs, it’s inaccurate to state that the Fighting Irish special teams “stink.” However, no one can debate that the return and coverage games still have plenty of room for improvement.
Among 123 teams, here were the final numbers:
Kick Returns — 21st (23.76)
George Atkinson III burst on to the scene as a freshman in 2011 as one of the nation’s elite kick return men, scoring against both Michigan State and USC. He joined the peerless Raghib “Rocket” Ismail as the lone Irish freshmen ever to score twice on kick returns.
His 31 returns this year averaged 25.2 yards, with a long of 50 (at Michigan), but he wasn’t able to quite go the distance the past two years. It might be his best chance to make an NFL roster this year.
Classmate Amir Carlisle took the suspended Atkinson’s place in the bowl and averaged 27 yards on his three returns, highlighted by one of 35 yards. He should find a niche in that capacity in 2014.
Kick Return Defense — 120th (25.68)
This was a bane throughout the year, with the one surprise being that an opponent didn’t actually score. Time and again Irish momentum was squelched with a long kickoff return by the opposition that flipped the field, including 51- and 44-yard returns by Rutgers into Notre Dame territory that helped keep them in the game for 55 minutes.
Against Stanford, 51- and 34-yard returns by Ty Montgomery hurt, 44- and 49-yard returns by Navy almost allowed the Midshipmen to pull off the upset, Oklahoma had a 40-yard return to set up a score…
Only three teams finished lower than Notre Dame in this area, including BCS Championship participant Auburn, which was 121st and surrendered a fourth quarter touchdown to Florida State on a kickoff.
Punt Returns — 80th (7.07)
Eureka! This was maybe the single most improved area of the team, relatively speaking.
Notre Dame was 112th in 2011 (48 yards total, 3.69 yards per return) and 116th in 2012 (46 yards, 2.2 yards per return), so this year’s 106 yards eclipsed the combined 94 from the last two. In Kelly’s first year it totaled only 91 yards and 5.4 yards per its 17 attempts.
TJ Jones provided a little more aggressive element with his 14 attempts that netted 106 yards.
It’s still well below average nationally. 2014 Irish opponent North Carolina led the nation with an 18.1 average, and five of its 30 returns resulted in touchdowns. Alabama and USC both scored three times on punt returns.
Punt Return Defense — 84th (9.47)
This wasn’t bad if you eliminated the effort of USC’s Nelson Agholor, who had 48-, 34- and 16-yard returns in the Trojans’ 14-10 loss at Notre Dame. The other 14 returns against the Irish in 2013 netted only 63 yards.
Net Punting — 105th (34.69)
This can be a misleading figure mainly because of pooch or directional punting, which had Alex Wulfeck complementing Brindza. If the Irish were to punt from the opponent’s 45 and the ball only travels 34 yards, with no return, it’s still an effective punt because it pins the foe at the 11.
The Irish did have a punt blocked by Michigan State, the lone time that has happened in the four-year Kelly era that has had 52 games.