Special Teams Review: Arizona State

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Just when I thought you couldn't possibly be any dumber, you go and do something like this... and totally redeem yourself!

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Coming off a strong special teams performance last week, the Irish did not disappoint against Arizona State. I highlighted several areas where the Irish could make moves against the Sun Devils and ND certainly did. Because we are on a bye week and I want to keep you guys engaged, I am going to split this series up into two. First, I will take a look at ND’s performance on Saturday. I will preview Southern Cal’s Special Teams in a future post this coming week. As for ND’s performance on Saturday, let’s take a look.

ND Kickoff

The Irish had 8 kickoffs this game, all taken by Kyle Brindza. He booted the 8 for 519 yards, averaging 64.9 yards per boot. Shocking to me, 7 of the 8 of these went for touchbacks. I know that a common perception from the average fan looking at these kickoffs congratulated Kyle on his leg and I certainly applauded him as well. However, Kyle’s ability to boot the ball high AND deep can and has resulted in returns less than 25 yards and tackles inside the 25-yard line, which is actually more ideal than a simple touchback kick. ASU’s lone return came at the hands of Marion Grice, who returned the kick 21 yards to the 22-yard line. This was an excellent kick by Kyle and excellent coverage by the kick team. Let’s take a look at the coverage.

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It's hard to see because of the blur but Kyle is clearly trying to get this ball as high and deep as possible. His speed and force took him off the ground, something he's been improving on as the season went on. Heck, as this game went on, his kicks got deeper and deeper.

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Grice fielded the ball at the 1. It had great hangtime and gave the Irish time to get downfield for a tackle.

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NBC's camera angle on this kick made it hard to tell how the blockers and coverage team did on the top of the field, but the first man down was Devin Butler, who did a good job of containing Grice and not allowing him to switch fields. It should be noted, however, that Grice never even looked to switch fields and was going right the whole way.

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Once again, hard to tell from the camera angle how the coverage team did but you can see from this that not only are they downfield inside the 25-yard line, but they are ready for a tackle. In a cookie-worthy note, most, if not all, of the ND coverage players on the right side of the field are inside the 25. One of them actually knocked an ASU player on his duff. Butler took a great angle to help on the eventual tackle.

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And the tackle is made. This has to be an amazing fact: of the 11 guys on the ND coverage unit, a whopping 7 of them are within yards of Grice and multiple are making the tackle. Fantastic coverage.

Overall, it’s hard to knock a guy for booting 7 of 8 kicks into the endzone, but the coverage on the return shows that ND CAN pin teams inside the 25. The important fact to remember is that ND needs to maintain lanes, not get blocked easily, and not overpursue. Butler overpursued a tad but his presence forced Grice into the outside lane where ND's coverage team was waiting. Great job by the kick team on this return.

ND Punt

Once again, we saw a tag team of Kyle Brindza and Alex Wulfeck taking punts. I am actually a fan of this—any time Alex can give Kyle’s leg a rest, I am for it, and Alex has shown that he can be successful. Wulfeck, for the first time this season, took a majority of the punts—3 in total. He booted these for 80 yards for a small average of 26.7. Now, I would say that this average is extremely low, but you need to look at the situations in which Wulfeck punted. Wulfeck’s first punt was kicked from the ASU 45-yard line and traveled 26 yards. I think that it was somewhat shanked (I’ll take a look at this below). However, it was downed at ASU’s 19-yard line—inside the 20—making it a good punt in my book. Wulfeck’s second punt was booted from the ASU 38, traveling 27 yards and downed at the ASU 11 by a fair catch. His third punt, booted from the ASU 43, traveled 27 yards and was downed at the ASU 16. If you didn’t catch the stat, ALL THREE of Wulfeck’s punts were downed inside the 20. That’s great placement. Sure, he could probably get some more distance but this set the Irish up for great defensive field position. Off the three ensuing ASU possessions, the Sun Devils only managed 2 field goals and the Irish forced a turnover (Jackson’s strip) on the third.

Kyle Brindza booted 2 punts on the night for 101 yards, an elite average of 50.5 per punt. His first, booted from ND’s 15-yard line, went 48 yards and was fair caught by the Sun Devils. His second, and probably his best punt of the year, went 53 yards and was downed at the 1 yard line in a great play by Farley. His first punt resulted in a punt by ASU and his second was the pick-6 by Fox. Again, if you didn’t catch the stat, NONE of ND’s punts resulted in touchdowns by ASU on their ensuing drives. Let’s take a look at Wulfeck’s first punt (the "shank"), his best punt (the 11-yard line downed punt) and Brindza’s 2nd punt, the 53 yarder.

ND Wulfeck "Shank" Punt

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This is Alex's point-of-contact. He is a tad too vertical for my liking and I still get the heebie-jeebies from his happy feet but he seems comfortable with it and as long as the punt team blocks, he's good. In this picture, you can see that ASU came with a pretty significant block, sending 4 guys and dropping the other 6. Some of the ASU guys' rushes were delayed and this makes me think ASU was in a hybrid safe-punt, preparing for a possible fake. I have seen other teams do this in other games this season and it's a bit shocking to me that teams are so willing to concede the fair-catch when all they need to do is block.

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It's hard to see the ball because it is blurry so I highlighted it in yellow, right above Joe Schmidt. Wulfeck, in an applause-worthy note, booted it towards the corner. Unfortunately, he got too far under it and it ended up bouncing out at the 19. Given the coverage team's placement, they could have stopped a punt past the 19 but I think Wulfeck simply got too under the ball and thus it only made it 26 yards. Not a bad punt but it certainly could have been better. I think the fact that Alex was too vertical killed any forward momentum that the ball could have had. He has had 30+ yard punts this season and I think the fear of a touchback caused him to not boot this one as far as he could have.

ND Wulfeck Downed Punt

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Here is Alex's point-of-contact on his punt that was downed at the 11. Compared to his first punt, you can see that he is a lot more controlled. He is still too vertical for my liking but he certainly has a lot better form than his previous punt. Please take note of the ASU return team. Most of them dropped back, either preparing for a fake (which would have been stupid--it was 4th and 11) or to actually block for a return. They only sent 3-4 guys on this one, none of them tough.

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And here is the fair catch. Great job by the ND punt coverage team to surround the ball in the event of a fumble or a fake fair catch. The ND man at the 4-yard line is in perfect position to prevent a touchback. Note ND's coverage team with where they were in the previous screenshot of the point-of-contact and where they are now. ASU didn't even bother to block for a return and conceded the fair-catch. This is horrible coaching, no way to sugar coat it. Every punt can be returned if it is kicked in the field of play, and ASU's readiness to conceded field position is just absolutely mind-boggling to me. In the first screenshot, there are more than enough ASU guys back to block for a return and they just didn't even bother. Poor coaching, poor strategy, but great job by ND to take advantage of it.

ND Brindza 53-yard Punt

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This is Kyle's point-of-contact. He is too vertical for my liking (a recurring theme, I know), but the snap here was low. Because of that, his drop was lower than it normally is and I think this actually benefitted the punt itself--it went deeper than it probably would have if it was a good snap.

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I highlighted where the ball is when it was headed to the ground. Grice, in what had to be one of the worst decisions made by an ASU player all night, decided to let this bounce at the 19-yard line and not go for a fair catch. This was a terrible decision. The ND players are not allowed to touch him and he could run into them and get an easy penalty call out of it if he had even made a minor attempt to field the ball. Instead, he let it bounce...

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And the ball bounced to the 1, where it was downed by Farley, with long snapper Scott Daly waiting on the ground at the 1 incase Farley missed it. This was fantastic coverage by the ND team and terrible play by ASU. I mean, just look--there is an ASU guy in the middle of the field at the goal line blocking nobody and another in the end zone. What are they doing? What are they thinking? I have no idea. Thus, I chalk this one up to poor coaching of ASU's special teams. Their poor decisions led to the ASU offense having to start from their own 1-yard line, down a field goal, with 80 seconds to play. As we all know, ND's ferocious pass rush forced ASU into throwing a pick-6 on the ensuing play. If I had to give a letter grade to the ND punt team on Saturday, it is a solid A. Wulfeck's punts could have been better but the coverage team allowed 0 returns and downed 4 punts inside the 20. Fantastic job.

ND Field Goal

Kyle Brindza was 3-4 on the night in what amounted to a historic performance on his part. While he horribly pulled his first field goal try of the game, a 38-yard attempt, he was successful from 25, 33, and 53. The 53 yarder tied for the longest field goal made in the history of ND football. Kudos to Kyle on this absolutely historical achievement. Let’s take a look at the miss and the 53 yarder.

ND Brindza FG Miss

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Here is Kyle prior to the snap. Now, maybe it's me reading between the lines and knowing what is going to happen but I really don't think he looks comfortable here. He should be relaxed and I think he's just too tense. Maybe it was the first kick in Jerry World but I actually said at the time while watching the game on Saturday, "Wow, he doesn't look comfortable at all."

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Here's his point-of-contact (the ball is a blur in the line, I'll highlight its path below). He is not aiming inside the right upright and his body is pulling the ball left. Note his plant foot--it's off the ground--which isn't a bad thing, but it's turned, showing that he's actually pulling the ball. His shoulders are almost to the left, his hips even moreso. From this image alone, you can tell that the ball is going left and FAR left.

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And there's the ball. Look at Kyle's shoulders--they're pointing to the left-upright (maybe even past the left upright). They should be pointing to the right upright. The ball is already on its way towards the tunnel. Poor form on his part, and it's not surprising that his poor form led to the pull. Now, for theories...

I think Kyle's leg is extremely strong and because of that, the natural leg motion (across the body) is more exagerated. I think because of this, he pulls the ball a lot. Because this kick was on the right hash, I think Kyle, mentally, thought (or thinks) that he needs to get the ball left. The problem with this is the ball is NATURALLY going to go to the left--all he needs to do is adjust his plant so that the kick goes towards the right upright. He did this below for the 53-yarder.

ND Brindza 53-yard FG

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Here is Kyle's 53-yarder pre-kick. He still looks a little stiff, so I think that was me just reading between the lines. The difference in this, that I think may play a part, is that his approach looks a lot better.

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And here is his point-of-contact. Compare this with his missed kick; his shoulders are at the right upright and he's a lot more controlled.

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Look at where the kick started and where it ended up. He hooked it, no doubt about it, but he knew that and anticipated its flight-path. He aimed for the right upright and it snuck inside the left. Historical kick for Kyle, congratulations to him on this important milestone in his career. Here's to hoping he eventually breaks the 53-yard record.

ND Kick Return

ND had 6 kick returns on the day for a total of 117 yards. The Irish returned all 6 of ASU’s kickoffs. This is utterly shocking to me, as ASU’s kickoff man, Alex Garoutte, is a strong kicker with the ability to get the ball into the endzone. Also shocking to me was that Cam McDaniel took 5 of the 6 returns, not George Atkinson III. Cam’s 5 returns went for 83 yards, a long of 22. George had the 6th return and took it for 34 yards. Cam’s returns made it to the 16, 31, 21, 28, and 29. This is not bad, but I’ll take a look at the best and worst of them below, along with George’s return.

ND McDaniel Return to the 16-Yard Line

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Garoutte's kick actually bounded at the 3-yard line. This was not a bad idea by Cam to let it bounce--if it had gone out of bounds, it would have set the Irish up for great field position. If Cam had attempted to catch it, his momentum likely would have taken him out of bounds. It was unfortunate for the Irish that the ball careened back into play and not to the sidelines.

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As I said above, the ball bounced over Cam's head back into the field of play, forcing McDaniel to return the ball from inside the 1. This was just extremely unfortunate, but a good return could still be made, albeit time was wasted while the ball bounced.

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Cam just tried to make the best of this one and got it out to the 16. However, note that there are multiple ND players who missed blocks (because of the blurs, it is hard to see but one of the culprits was Will Mahone). This is a hard return to use as an example because of the crazy bounce the kickoff took but it still goes to show that the return team NEEDS to hold their blocks.

ND McDaniel Return to the 31-Yard Line

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This is Garoutte's point-of-contact. While it is not important for ND's return purposes, I wanted to highlight his form with the form of Kyle Brindza below:

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Their bodies are night-and-day. Kyle is getting leverage UP whereas Garoutte is getting leverage FORWARD. There's also another important fact to note here: Kyle is kicking with his entire body whereas Garoutte is trying to simply rely on his leg alone. There's no surprise, then, that Garoutte's kick landed on the 9 and Kyle's was booted 5+ yards deep into the endzone.

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Cam fielded this ball at the 9. The return team is set and beginning their trek upfield to block.

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Not fantastic blocking but there's definitely a hole here. Cam saw it and made a beeline for it.

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Cam hit the hole but was swallowed up by the ASU guys trailing. ND needs to hold their blocks here because there was a hole and the players simply gave up on it. Unfortunately for teaching purposes, the NBC camera crew was too zoomed in and I can't tell who let their blocks go and who stayed with them. Still, you can tell, from the result, that there are ASU guys unblocked. This needs to be rectified going forward. It was still a fantastic return on Cam's part but teams like Stanford are going to eat ND alive if they don't stick with their blocks.

ND Atkinson Return

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Here is George's return, the longest of the night. He fielded the ball at the 5 and is ready with blockers ahead of him.

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I was really happy that Cam was back there for this game and this is why. His block on #4 in the middle of the field sealed the outside and Atkinson made a sprint for it. He had wide open field ahead of him because of this simple block.

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Joe Schmidt and Will Mahone failed to maintain their blocks, allowing ASU to have guys get at George, but the damage was done at this point. He is already past the 25 and easily made it to the 36. Great job by Cam McDaniel on this return--his block was the block that made it happen.

ND Punt Return

Coming into the game, I noted ASU’s use of multiple punters over the course of the season. Matt Haack was the punter du jour on Saturday and booted 5 punts for an average of 38.4 yards per boot. He had a 52 yarder and 1 touchback. On the lone punt that was returned, TJ Jones shined. His return went for 27 yards, the longest in the tenure of Brian Kelly at ND. Let’s take a look at it.

ND TJ Return

EDIT: Apparently this wasn't the longest return of the BK Era--that honor goes to Michael Floyd.  So, in the spirit of Eric M, I'd like to adjust that to say this was the Longest Punt Return IN THE HISTORY OF THE SHAMROCK SERIES!

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Here's the screenshot from just after the point of contact. Note that there are THREE ASU players running free with no blockers, and the rear blocker for ND is too far forward to make an impact. This is inexcusable and from this image alone, it's surprising ND had the result that it did on this play.

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Jones fields the ball at the 30 and immediately has an ASU player on him, with another 2-4 ready to assist. Only one ND blocker in this picture is actually prepared to help. Somewhat concerning to me is that Cole Luke is standing at the 42 doing absolutely nothing. At least he's prepared to block someone but again, there's no way, given ND's setup, why this punt return should have made it as far as it did.

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And there's your answer why this punt return made it as far as it did--Overpursuit and Poor Tackling. I give great credit to TJ here. He really made something out of nothing and never gave up. It was arguably reckless that he fielded the punt to begin with and didn't fair catch it but given the night he was having up to this point, it only helped boost his confidence that he could make a play. Also, I would like to give props on this play to Eilar Hardy, #16, who kept blocking his man and allowed for Jones to make a break to the outside.

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EILAR HARDY! Look at him still blocking his guy, even though Jones is way past him. Great job--the rest of the unit needs to take an example from this kid. Multiple ASU guys were unblocked here and Jones simply turned on the jets and blew right past them.

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You can't see because of the blur, but the block to Jones's right is from James Onuwalu. For all the crap I gave him at the beginning of the season on special teams, he's really turning into a star on the special teams unit. His block, arguably, gave Jones another 10+ yards to run.

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Will Sutton, all 300+ pounds of him, forced TJ to break the ball back inside and his loss of momentum led to...

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the tackle. TJ probably could have juked by him and maintained his speed but his attempt to cut the ball back allowed for Sutton to make the tackle, with help from his already-beaten teammates. If there were three stars to give on this return, I'd have to give them to Jones (for making great moves and showing great speed), Hardy, and Onuwalu, for making fantastic blocks. Not a perfect return by any means, but it is the longest punt return of the Brian Kelly era of ND football. Perfect blocking on this play could have resulted in a return for a touchdown.

That does it for me on the ASU review. The Irish played great in this game, arguably their best game as a special teams unit of the season. Hopefully the trend continues upwards as we go on.

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