Special Teams: Oklahoma Review, Arizona State Preview

Jonathan Daniel

Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; nay, you may kick it about all day, like a football, and it will be round and full at evening.

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While the result was not what we all wanted to happen, ND’s special teams on Saturday performed admirably. Yes, I said admirably. They were not perfect but it was hardly the worst I have seen this season. Yes, there were some minor blown assignments on the kickoff coverage and the lack of field goal opportunities hurt, but ND, overall, played a decent, if not great, game in special teams. There were no fumbles like in Michigan State, there were no massive failures of coverage or blocked kicks, and ND’s punt unit had, arguably, their best game of the season. Also, giving credit where credit is due, Oklahoma's special teams units were well prepared...on some plays. Let's get to the specifics.

ND Kickoff

Notre Dame, specifically Kyle Brindza, had 4 kickoffs this game for a total of 251 yards for an average of 62.8 yards per kickoff. What hurt ND is that they allowed 37.8 net yards on each kickoff and only had 1 touchback—I think Kelly and Co. wanted to hangtime these and see what Oklahoma could do. Oklahoma managed 75 yards on 3 returns for an average of 25 yards per kick. That’s great for Oklahoma and terrible for ND. Roy Finch took two of these kicks for 35 yards with a long of 24. This was not bad. What hurt ND was Trey Franks’s lone return for 40 yards. Let’s take a look at all three:

ND 1st Kickoff

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First I wanted to highlight how Brindza looks here (the guy with the leg in the air). He’s clearly using all of his momentum to get the ball up in the air. This is what leads me to believe that he’s not trying to boot the ball out of the back of the endzone, but rather, is trying to plant it 1-2 yards deep and force a return.

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In what I think was a terribly reckless decision, the Oklahoma return man almost runs out of bounds with the ball after catching it just inside the pylon. If I were a return coach, I would tell my unit to just let the ball go if you’re going to do this. He was mere feet from having this go out at the 1 yard line. His momentum is not going upfield, so he is going to waste precious time getting back up to speed. At this rate, it would have been more beneficial for him to just let it go. If there is one concerning fact, it is that the upsetting fact is the ND coverage unit is still not in the picture, but the time wasted in catching the ball and shifting the returner's forward momentum upfield saved the Irish.

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And here come the first two. Oklahoma has 5 blockers to get two ND men. This is below average coverage, plain and simple. The ND coverage men NEED to be down there faster. This could have been slowed because of Oklahoma's blocking, and I will give credit to Oklahoma where credit is due.

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In that last image, Redfield took a poor angle and is now being blocked by #82 for Oklahoma, who has created a hole to the left. Devin Butler and Connor Cavalaris are in position to try and seal him off.

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My first cookie of the day goes to Connor Cavalaris, who took a fantastic angle and forced the Oklahoma return man back inside to Butler, who was waiting to assist with the tackle.

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I want George Atkinson to watch how this return guy ran this. He made contact with two ND tacklers at about the 20 yard line and hurled his body, moving so fast, that he made it out to the 23-24 yard line. This was still a coverage success for the Irish because he was tackled within the 25, but man, the Oklahoma return guy was absolutely fearless on this return. George needs to start running like this.

ND 2nd Kickoff

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ND’s second kickoff landed almost in the same spot as their first. I’m beginning to think that this is by design. The natural leg motion for a right-footed kicker is to hook the ball but this is great placement by Brindza to pin the return men to the sidelines right away.

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I think Oklahoma recognized this and moved the return towards the middle of the field. Here, you can see the return team start to move towards the middle while the ND guys pursue. ND has enough men free that they should still make a tackle—at this point, it’s 5 on 4, if they take good angles.

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This was a fantastic angle taken by the ND coverage unit, specifically James Onuwalu (streaking at the 20-yard line in the previous picture). For all the angry things I have said about his kickoff coverage in the past, I take it all back with this one play. Great angle, great coverage, and this set up ND with great field position. An absolutely perfectly executed kickoff coverage.

ND 3rd Kickoff

And now for a poorly-executed kickoff coverage.

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This image is one of the most important of this series because it highlights two very important things that contributed to the long kickoff return from Oklahoma. First, it highlights Brindza’s natural leg motion to hook the ball, and this is where his kickoffs went (to the pylon) this entire game. Second, contrast this with his first kick—he clearly didn’t kick it as hard, he isn't exploding through the ball, still kind of vertical and not off the ground. In short, he's trying to power it with his leg and not with his body and hips. It showed in the result.

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Franks caught the ball at the 8, a very short kick by Brindza’s standards. Regardless, ND isn't in terrible position here--they are just crossing the 30 and could conceivably make a tackle inside the 25. The negative to this is what you can clearly see: the Oklahoma players have taken lanes and are not attacking ND players, but letting the ND coverage team come to them.

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If the first couple of images were enough to make you uneasy, this is the one that highlights the first real failure on this play. Kendall Moore is engaged and Councell has been tied up at the 31-32 yard line with another blocker. Oklahoma now has a hole--a big hole--with more than enough blockers to account for the ND coverage team.

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Onuwalu tried his best but the damage was done. Franks hit the hole and has blocker ahead of him. If there is a plus to this, Eilar Hardy and John Turner are taking safety angles to try and prevent a touchdown. Any hope at a successful coverage tackle inside the 25 is gone at this point.

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Unfortunately for Hardy, he got tied up, but the ND coverage unit still pinned Franks to the sidelines and Brindza forced him out past the 40. On this return, you have to grade it as poor because of how long it went. That said, I didn’t see any overpursuit or real failures on the coverage team, other than their inability to get down quick enough, the fact that some of them got tied up, and Brindza’s poor kick. It was great recovery to pin Franks to the sidelines but this was not the special teams result the Irish wanted after scoring on the previous drive. I have to give cookies to Oklahoma’s return team at the same time. They made their blocks and made a hole for their return guy. This kickoff coverage unit, at least on this play, was well coached and executed perfectly. If there was one real failure on this, I would have to say it was Brindza's kick. Brindza has to get this ball deeper to help his coverage team. I think this is a rare "good" return from one of the Irish opponents with no real massive failure on the part of the Irish. There were some "Eh, he could have taken a better angle," thoughts I had, but Oklahoma's return unit just blocked this one perfectly.

ND Punt

ND punted 6 times in this game and had an excellent day doing it. I am really proud of this punting unit because they have gotten better each and every game. Brindza took 5 of the punts and booted them for 205 yards, an average of 41 yards per punt with a long of 55. Wulfeck took the sixth punt and booted it for 37 yards and planted it inside the 20. For as terrified as I was of Jalen Saunders’s returning ability before the game, ND must have been equally so, and corralled Saunders to one lone return for 1 yard. This, without a doubt, was the shining moment for the special teams unit this year. Coming into this game, Jalen Saunders was one of the most prolific punt returners in the game and ND absolutely shut him down. Brindza’s first punt went for 46 yards and was fair caught. His second went for only 29 but ND gained an additional 15 yards on a personal foul penalty on Oklahoma. His third went for 29, fourth for 55 (returned for 1 yard) and his fifth for 36, also fair caught. While the 29 yarder is disconcerting, ND benefitted from a penalty, effectively making it a 44 yarder. I consider 35 yards the absolute average so the fact that 4 of Brindza’s punts went for over the average is excellent. Let’s take a look at the 29 yarder to see what, if anything, went wrong, the 55 yarder with a short return, and Wulfeck’s downed punt, to see how ND’s coverage unit performed.

ND 29-yard Punt

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Here is the point of contact screenshot of Brindza's 29-yard punt. The huge glaring problem here is that Brindza is way too vertical on this. He has great flexibility, as evidenced by his leg height, but his shoulders are not nearly as forward as they need to be. The only place this ball is going to go is straight up in the air.

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And the ball came to rest on the 49 yard line (the dark dot on the sidelines of the 49) because it, essentially, went straight up in the air. There are no if-ands-or-buts about it--this was an absolutely terrible punt for Kyle here. ND really lucked out with the Personal Foul penalty. Kyle has to get his shoulders forward and lower his drop if he wants to keep this ball down and out.

ND 55-yard Punt and Oklahoma's Return

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Here’s Kyle’s point of contact. He’s still too vertical for my liking but definitely made better contact with it when compared to his 29-yarder above. His shoulders are not as far back as they were previously. There also may have been a wind factor on this kick but I was not at the game and am not 100% certain.

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Saunders was still backpedaling when he caught this one at the 29. Brindza out-kicked his coverage but ND has 2 guys down within 10 yards to make a stop, with no Oklahoma help in front of Saunders (there is one Oklahoma guy and he can't block the first man because of a block in the back possibility, and he will not turn around because, let's face it, he's not going to turn around).

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Couple thoughts here. First, the ND man slowed down to allow for a decent block from the side by the Oklahoma return unit. Secondly, Saunders has a hole to both the right and the left. Did Saunders take the hole and run? Nope, he hesitated and tried to get fancy. This should be a teaching moment for Saunders. He tried to shake-and-bake similar to his long return that I highlighted in my game preview. If he had just put his head down and ran for space, he could have gotten 10 yards. Instead…

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This was a very good angle taken by Farley. It was not excellent because he overpursued a tad, but he knew he was unblocked and made a run at Saunders. He also made sure that when he grabbed Saunders, he didn’t let go. This was good coverage and VERY poor decision-making by Saunders. Uncharacteristic for him but ND took advantage of the miscue.

ND Wulfeck Punt Inside the 20

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When I talk about the fact that Kyle’s shoulders need to be forward, this is precisely what I am referring to. Alex Wulfeck has excellent form here and this is going to be a deep kick.

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Another note: Oklahoma was definitely in a safe return. If you look at the previous picture, Oklahoma has a string of men lined across the 45. I'm not quite sure why they were in a safe return here, though. The game was within 7 points and ND had a chance to pin Oklahoma deep early in the 2nd quarter. Going for it on 4th and 11 would have been mind-bogglingly stupid. As for the return, because of the safe return and lack of men down to help block, Saunders had no shot at a return. Just look at how many blue jerseys were in front of him.

Overall, this was a great day for the Irish punt unit. Yes, Brindza’s 29 yarder was a shank, but the coverage unit played great otherwise, took excellent angles, and is really improving on the season.

ND Kick Return

Coming into the game, I noted that Nick Hodgson, Oklahoma’s kickoff kicker, aimed to boot the ball out of the back of the endzone most times and I was not wrong in this game. Hodgson had 7 kickoffs that went for 450 yards, an average of 64.3 yards per boot, and 6 of them were touchbacks. Only one was returned, by George, that went for a respectable 29 yards. This was the one that Hodgson must have miskicked and it squibbed downfield. Now, I noted last week that MSU screwed up royally by letting the squib stop before picking it up because it gave the coverage team time to get downfield. George Atkinson, who had probably the most productive day overall for the Irish, did not let this happen, and picked it up and went for 29 yards. Let’s take a look at it.

ND Atkinson Return

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Hodgson miskicked this one. It’s a common fault for kickers who try and blast the ball that they’ll get the occasional knuckling-squib. Brindza had one last game and Hodgson’s first kickoff of this game was also a squib. Atkinson, unlike the MSU return man last week, actually ran up to this ball and fielded it at the 10-11 yard line. Good position for a good return.

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ND tried making a hole to the middle and was moderately successful. Collinsworth ran right at this "fork," but Atkinson chose to go left. There’s a hole in both spots so it was up to him to make a decision. Atkinson got in this hole and in what I have yet to have seen him do all season, he lowered his head and bull-rushed forward with the ball, running like a mad man. If he had gone right and followed Collinsworth, he may still be running because the Oklahoma guys here are the safety valves and are unblocked for that reason.

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And the safety men made the tackle. Overall, this was a great return by George and the return unit. It was also great coverage by Oklahoma to prevent a home run shot. I can’t see many flaws on either side here. Yes, George could have followed Collinsworth. Collinsworth could have also cut into the left hole and take on the safety valve, but Oklahoma stayed home and worked to get George down. This was also the most ferocious I have seen George run on a kick return all season.

ND and Oklahoma Field Goal

In what must be a rarity, ND had no field goals this game. Oklahoma managed two and Mike Hunnicutt booted both of them in, one from 27 yards and the other from 19. Now, factoring in the 10 yards from the endzone and 3 for the placement, these kicks went from the 14 yard line and 6 yard line respectively. That’s great defense on ND to hold Oklahoma to these. The score could have been much worse had Oklahoma punched either of these in.

Looking Forward to Arizona State

Arizona State is currently sitting at 3-1 with wins over Sacramento State (FCS), Wisconsin (in a controversial ending) and Southern Cal last week, with a loss to Stanford. In the kick return game, ASU has had 14 returns thus far for 307 yards, an average return of 21.9 yards. Marion Grice, ASU’s leading rusher, has the bulk of these returns—9 of them—for 22.9 yards and a long of 36, the longest of any return man the Sun Devils have. Richard Smith has 3 of these returns for a worse average of 18.7 yards per return (56 yards overall), Jaelen Strong has one return for 19 yards, and Alden Darby has 1 return for 26 yards. In the kick-coverage game, ASU has a whopping 32 kickoffs for a total of 2,052 yards, an average of 64.1 yards per kick and a net of 41.5. Alex Garoutte has all 32 kicks and has touched-back 20 of them, leading me to believe that ASU’s goal is similar to that of Oklahoma—just boot it as far as possible (look at the SCS game for example—of ASU’s 10 kickoffs, Garoutte touched-back 9 of them). This isn’t far off, as the 12 returns ASU has allowed only went for 225 yards, an average of 18.8 per return with a long of 50 (almost 25% of their kick return yardage allowed). Like Oklahoma, ASU has a different kicker for their field goals—Zane Gonzalez—who is 6 for 9 on the season. He has made from 40, 29, 34, 19, 28, and 21. He missed two vs. SCS from 33 and 49, missed his only opportunity vs. Stanford for 45, and was 100% vs. Southern Cal. The punt game is where ASU really falls off the wagon. ASU has employed the services of 3 punters this season. The best is Dominick Vizzare, who has 6 punts for 235 yards, an average of 39.2, a long of 45, 2 fair-caught, and 2 inside the 20. Matt Haack has taken 4 punts for 155 yards, an average of 38.8 yards per boot, a long of 50, and 1 inside the 20. Alex Garoutte, the kickoff man, has taken 3 punts for 114 yards, an average of 38, and a long of 46, with one inside the 20. ASU has had 2 punts blocked this season. In the coverage game, ASU has allowed a whopping 11.9 yards per return with only a long of 19, indicating to me that the 11.9 number isn’t being propped up by a huge return like Tulsa’s vs. Oklahoma.

Now, for more context. Ezekiel Graham for SCS had 1 kick return for 15 yards. Against Wisconsin, Kenzel Doe had 3 kick returns for 64 yards, an average of 21.3, and a long of 27. Stanford’s Montgomery had 3 returns for 81 yards and a long of 50 (Cummings had 1 for 10 yards). Marquise Lee had 2 returns for Southern Cal for 31 yards and a long of 20. Overall, not terrible but not fantastic. In the punt return game, Lee had 2 returns for 23 yards and a long of 18. Ezekiel Graham had the longest punt return of the year vs. ASU for 19 yards. Kenzel Doe for Wisconsin had 1 for 16 yards. Gardner for Stanford had 1 for 24 yards that was brought back from a penalty making it only a 10 yard return. I also want to highlight this important, mind-boggling fact: ARIZONA STATE HAS USED 3 PUNTERS. That's crazy. All three have decent stats, so I have no idea why Graham has decided to keep switching them up. If any Arizona State fans want to chime in, please feel free to do so in the comments--I would really like to know why. As for the formations and play, let’s take a look at ASU’s punt coverage on Lee’s 18 yard return, Montgomery’s 50 yard return for Stanford, and the 45 yard field goal miss vs. Stanford.

ASU Punt Coverage on Lee’s 18 Yard Return

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So far this season, only Michigan has utilized the traditional punt formation. Arizona State is lined up in your conventional spread punt formation. Oddly enough, though, they have most of their guys on the line and only one gunner up top.

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And now it sort of makes sense. Garoutte, the kickoff man, is the one punting this ball, and he is doing a directional rugby-style kick. He took the snap, ran a bit to the right, and is drop-kicking the ball much like a rugby player. There is no traditional form here. Also, Southern Cal came with a pretty hefty block and didn't leave much in the way of return blockers. Note that there are two Southern Cal defenders on four ASU coverage men, not counting the gunner at the top of the screen.

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Now it's beginning to make a bit more sense to me. I think Arizona State was afraid of Lee's return ability and that's why they went with the rugby kick. I should note that this punt was not remotely similar to Cody Webster from Purdue--this one must have bounced 4-5 times before Lee snagged it off the bounce. The problem with this, obviously, is that it left very little time for the ASU coverage team to get downfield, and that's why this lone ASU man is the only one within the screen--not even the gunner made it down quick enough.

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The ASU man made a gallant effort at a leg tackle but failed miserably. This is why I hate leg tackles. If the ASU man had just broken-down and performed a proper tackle or tried to tackle Lee by his waist, he may not have gotten away. The second ASU man is just coming into the screen but he is still 10 yards away.

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Classic over-pursuit. The ASU coverage team finally made it into the screen but note that all of them are running to where Lee IS and not WHERE HE IS GOING TO BE. Lee has a wide-open lane to the outside if he can beat the one man going after him at the hash.

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And he did. This is why the directional rugby-style kick is a gamble. ASU banked on keeping Lee to the right side (top) of the field and now he is at the bottom with a slew of blockers and open field in front of him.

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And ASU finally corralled Lee at the 49. Overall, a great return for the Trojans and a really dumb idea by Arizona State. If they want to limit returns, just kick it to the sidelines, or try and get it high and force a fair catch. In this day and age of the spread punt formation, coverage should not be a problem, and I think long returns are rare. Instead of keeping the ball to the right, Southern Cal was able to switch fields rather quickly and take advantage. As for how this looks for us, I have a hard time believing ASU would do the same thing to Notre Dame. Lee is a dynamic return man and I think they may just try and boot it instead of playing games. If not, though, the opportunities are endless. Hopefully TJ watches some gametape and learns a thing or two from this.

ASU Kickoff Coverage on Montgomery’s 50 yard return

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ASU kicks off. Note the difference in form of Garoutte, the ASU kicker, versus Kyle in the images above. Garoutte is much lower, shoulders much more down, and has a much lower leg position. This indicates to me that he's trying to drive the ball as far as possible and is not going for hangtime.

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The driving kick only made it to the goal line and because it was so low, Stanford has a lot of time before the coverage team comes into view.

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Pictures like this make me weep tears of joy. I want to email this to Brian Kelly and the ND coaching staff as evidence of how kickoff returns are supposed to be done. EVERY single ASU player is accounted for and Montgomery has a wide hole to the top side of the field. He has also not slowed down an iota and is making a break for the sidelines. This is just picture-perfect coverage. The only spotty block on this screen is #5 for Stanford on #58 for ASU, but he is far enough away that Montgomery should be able to take advantage of it.

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Stanford may have gotten away with a minor hold here but the ASU guy was spinning, so it went uncalled. Montgomery got to open space and now the only hope for ASU is that their safety-valves are in position to make the tackle.

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And they were. Montgomery could have easily taken this back but stuck to the sidelines and just ran forward. I don't fault him for that at all, as cutting it back inside would have been an iffy proposition. What do we take from this? Block. Seriously, that's it. All ND needs to do to be successful in the kick return department against ASU (or any team for that matter) is block. ASU allowed themselves to be pushed off the ball and to get into this position. Stanford took advantage of it. This was nothing short of absolute picture-perfect blocking on the part of Stanford. There is a reason why they are a top 5 program and these images are some small proof of that.

ASU Field Goal Miss from 45 Yards

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Gonzalez lined up at the right hash to boot this one in from 45.

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The replay is really hard to see what Gonzalez's form looked like but after watching it over and over again, I think he just simply took his eyes off the ball. The result was much like what happens for a golfer when they look up before making contact.

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The ball seemed to knuckle wide right. If the wind was not a factor, I think it was just a simple miskick on the part of Gonzalez. He definitely had the leg to get it there but that leg has 3 misses on the year. Do I see such a thing happening against the Irish? It's possible--anything is possible--but I think this was just a simple miskick.

What do we take from these examples of ASU's special teams play? In all honesty, I think ASU suffers from the same lack of discipline at times that the Irish special teams unit suffers from. Disciplined players keep their lanes, don't overpursue, and don't miskick field goals. The one heartening stat for the Irish is ASU's punt return yardage allowed. If the problem with ASU is scheme, ND can certainly take advantage of that. Like always, it depends on whether the ND special teams units maintain their composure, stick to their lanes, make their blocks, and that the kickers use proper form.

As always, I welcome comments and questions below.

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