Special Teams: Air Force Review, Navy Preview

Kicking is what makes us kickers.

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Notre Dame won a convincing game on Saturday over the Falcons and the special teams was relatively silent for the most part. The major issues that surfaced against the Trojans seemed to be solved over the week and the Irish performed adequately on Saturday. Let's check out the plays.

ND Kickoff

Kyle Brindza had his work cut out for him on the ND kickoff unit on Saturday. With the high number of touchdowns, Brindza booted 8 kickoffs and touched-back 7 of them. Kyle has a strong leg and I don't doubt that he could have gotten them there regardless, but I think the cool mountain air and high altitude helped some of those kicks sail. The lone return came at the hands of Anthony Lacoste in the 4th quarter for 29 yards. Let's take a look at it.

Lacoste Return

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This was one of Kyle's only kicks that didn't sail out of the back of the endzone on the day. Lacoste caught the ball about 2 yards deep in the endzone. I noted in the preview that Air Force's return unit does not sit back for the coverage team but attacks them as they enter the field of play. This is why I think there are no ND players in view (and no Air Force return blockers on the front lines, for that matter).

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Onuwalu (at the 15) did a good job of forcing Lacoste towards the sidelines. ND also has guys there to make the play but unfortunately for them, Max Redfield and Ben Councell are both being blocked. There is an Air Force blocker also ready to seal the edge.

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Councell did a good job of shedding his block and making the tackle. What you don't see here is the fact that Councell was dragged an extra 5 yards after making initial contact because Lacoste ran ferociously. This is the kind of running on a return that I would like to see from George Atkinson III. Lacoste was not afraid of contact--in fact, he ran like he welcomed it--and he got an extra 5 yards after contact. It should also be concerning that initial contact came at about the 25-yard line. ND needs to tackle the return man inside the 25 if they want to take advantage of the return vs. touchback field position.

Overall, I would grade this coverage as poor. ND needed to shed the blocks quicker. If you notice from the 2nd screenshot, ND is down there and yet Lacoste managed to get 15 more yards.. In the end, it did not matter, as Air Force promptly went 3-and-out, but against a better team, ND needs all the yards they can get.

ND Kick Return

In the Preview for this game, I noted that Briceton Cannada, AF's primary kickoff man, allowed a return on about one-third of his kickoffs, and this statistic held true on Saturday. Cannada touched-back two of his kickoffs, but the third was taken by George Atkinson III for 37 yards to the ND-49 yard line. This was a great return for George and set the Irish up with great field position at midfield. ND would go on to score 3 plays later with a 22-yard strike from Rees to TE Ben Koyack. Let's take a look at George's Return.

Atkinson Return

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This was Cannada's shortest kick of the day. He just got too far underneath the ball off the tee and George caught it at the 13-yard line with blockers ahead of him. Kudos to CBSSN for actually zooming out on this return so I could see the return guys!

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Couple points from this screenshot. First, there are two things that make a kick returner successful. The first is being able to make a decision quickly and sticking with it. The second is running like your pants are on fire as soon as the ball hits your hands. George frustrates me on both because he always wants to find the homerun return or handoff and doesn't often run like a man possessed. Here, you can see that he made a decision to run left but is already questioning it because there are AF coverage men waiting for him at the 24-yard line. I don't fault him for making the decision to reverse fields but he should have recognized quicker what we can see on this screenshot; the entire right side of the field is wide open and blocked. If he made the initial decision to run right, he may have taken it back for a touchdown.

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I posted the next set of pictures together to give you an idea of what happened. George shed some tackles at the 23, saw a lane to the right, and bolted. Good job for him making the moves to get to the outside and switch fields quickly. I will probably get some flack from ND fans for saying this, but I can't help but feel the same way I felt after seeing TJ's long punt return against ASU. This should have never happened and the Irish were very lucky. George should have been tackled at the 23 and but for a missed tackle (with some minor overpursuit) on the part of Air Force, he made a long return out of it.

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Kudos to Cannada for making an excellent open-field tackle here. I saw some heehawing on Twitter after the return about how George should not have been tackled by the kicker but I strongly disagree here. Air Force is very disciplined and even though the coverage was botched as soon as George switched fields after the missed tackle, Air Force took some of the best recovery angles that I have seen of any team thus far this season. Not only did Cannada take a great angle for the tackle, but #18, Reggie Barnes, was already recovering towards the sidelines at an angle to get George. Some of the twitterverse opined that George had a TD if he missed Cannada's tackle but those twitterers are expecting a guy to break not one, but two, tackles, when he has not shown much ability to break any tackles thus far this season. George is great (one of the best) in open field but in traffic? Not so much. I also think Barnes could (and would) have brought him down because George had already slowed. Further, I think that George blew his chance at a TD return the minute he made the decision to run left. Still, having said all of that, this was a great return. ND held their blocks well and George compensated for a poor first-decision and got the ball to midfield. ND would end up scoring a touchdown off of this return.

ND did not have many chances on kick return on Saturday but they made the most of them. I will take a ND return to midfield any day of the week and twice on Saturdays. George could have returned this further but I think we would be grasping at straws to fault a return to midfield. I am a perfectionist so I look for faults everywhere, including the successful plays. This is why I say George could have returned it further. Still, I am ecstatic that we had good return and hope we have many more in the remaining games.

ND Punt

Notre Dame was rather prolific on offense on Saturday and thus Brindza's punt chances were few and far between. He booted only 3 punts on the day for 133 yards, an average of 44.3 per punt--very good for Kyle. Unfortunately for him, 2 of these punts were returned. One went for 2 yards and the other for 14. Let's take a look at both of them below. Also, I am going to show you Kyle's third punt, which was an absolute beauty. It went for 50 yards and landed out of bounds at the 5-yard line. Squee.

AF 2-yard Return

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CBSSN's TV angle for Brindza's punt was from behind, so I could not get a good look at his form. It must have been alright, as this punt sailed 41 yards. Brown caught it at the 23-24 yard lines and you can see that ND's coverage team is down and already sealing off the sidelines. The bottom of the field is open but Redfield is in a position where he can at least see the play and react if necessary. That's Lo Wood on the outside.

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And Wood makes the tackle, hitting the return man almost immediately. This was a good play on his part but it was risky. He tripped up the return man but this tackle could have been broken. If it was, you can see that the AF guy could have gotten to the outside, but I still would bet that he would not get far because there are ND guys in the area who could make a play.

Overall, this is how you should cover punts, for the most part. I would have liked to see Wood be a little less agressive--just a little--because he flung his body at the return man. Against better teams with better blocking, he may not have help behind him if he misses this tackle. Still, he made the tackle and gets a cookie from me for doing so. It was officially a 2-yard return but should have been 0--the AF return man fell forward for 2 yards.

AF 14-yard Return

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Here is Kyle's point-of-contact. I repeat myself a lot but I would like to see him less vertical and more forward. That said, his shoulders are not as forward as they have been on other punts this season and this one went 42 yards.

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Kyle out-kicked his coverage here, with Kendall Moore and Joe Schmidt, the two closest ND coverage men, 9 yards from the return man. By the way, that's a nice tiny block in the back on Schmidt right there but we won so who's counting.

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And that, right there, is a picture-perfect definition of over-pursuit. Moore went to prevent a return to the sidelines, Schmidt was being blocked in the back but still over-ran the ball, and Garrett Brown had a hole right to the middle of the field. Like Southern Cal, the outside contain on the top side of the field was conspicuously absent and I don't necessarily fault Kendall Moore for forcing the return man back inside. Also, note the AF discipline here; EVERY ND player has a blocker on their hip. There is not one single ND player running free. You could count John Turner but even he has a blocker with him. Absolutely fantastic discipline from Air Force.

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John Turner over-ran the angle and the Brown cut back to the outside. A plus for the coverage unit, Max Redfield and Joe Schmidt are already recovering, and this move slowed Brown down.

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Redfield made a great recovery and with help from Alex Welch, made the tackle. Garrett Brown got 14 yards on this return.

Overall, I think this was a combination of ND taking poor angles, over-running, and the coverage unit just flat-out not getting downfield fast enough (and maybe some out-kicking the coverage just a bit). I think Air Force engages their opponents further up field than most teams but still, a 42-yard punt should not result in a 14-yard return. The problems from Southern Cal were not as bad in this game but they are still there. ND needs to adjust (kick the ball OOB or to the sidelines) and fix this going forward, because other return men (looking forward at Stanford and BYU) will eat them alive.

Kyle's Awesome Punt

VIDEO TIME!!! Watch and enjoy. I would have shown this video at my wedding reception if it existed at the time and if my wife would have allowed it. It's that beautiful.

ND Punt Return

Coming into the game, I said that David Baska was a great punter and that AF's coverage unit was very disciplined. This was the case on Saturday, as Baska booted 5 punts for 180 yards, an average of 36 yards per kick. This was not great but over 35 yards is the goal in my book. Amir Carlisle was credited with 1 return for 0 yards. Let's take a look at it.

Carlisle Return

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Amir caught this ball at the 30-yard line. I really think this kid is going to be good because he has the speed and tenacity that I love to see in football players. Right now, he just lacks the vision, and I think that's a product of the fact that he played sparingly at Southern Cal before he transferred and was sidelined by an injury all of last season. This return is evidence that he lacks the vision, because he has the entire bottom of the field to run to. He would not have made it far because of Air Force's angles, but he could have gotten a decent return. However, you can already see that he's planting to take this return right instead of left. As for the rest of the return team, if I were their coach, I would make them run laps at the next week's practice if this was anything but a safe return. I have to think it was because there are so few ND guys back there to block for Amir, and with ND winning by so much, you have to think that maybe they were expecting some sort of trick play from Air Force. Aaron Taylor even mentioned it on the broadcast. Unfortunately, the camera work was poor and the camera switched to the ball mid-flight, so I could not see what sort of return we were in.

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And Amir promptly fumbled the ball but fell on it. I think he took his eyes off of it and attempted to find a lane before catching the ball. The most important job of any return man, whether it be kick or punt, is to catch/field the ball. After that, only THEN can the return man look for a hole or a lane. Losing this fumble would not exactly have been disastrous, as we had a comfortable lead, but it still would not have been a good thing. I feel good about Amir, I really do, and I hope he uses this as a learning tool going forward. I want to see him succeed.

Overall, this return had its positives. While it resulted in 0 yards and a fumble, we recovered it, and the lane was actually there to run.

ND Field Goal

Kyle Brindza booted one field goal in on Saturday from 51 yards out. This was a great kick. Unfortunately, things were not looking good to start out. The Irish found themselves in a stick situation early, with their first scoring chance of the game, a 46-yard FG attempt from Brindza, blocked by Air Force. I wanted to highlight some points on that kick that could explain what went wrong.

Blocked Field Goal Attempt

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Kyle must have a curse of the "first attempts of the game." Here is a screenshot of the kick immediately after it was blocked. You can see the big Air Force guy right in the middle who got a hand on it. He has almost zero penetration into ND's line and is just leaping for faith. I have to think that Kyle's form was poor and he just drove the ball too low. CBSSN was kind enough to show a tiny little replay that is below:

After watching that kick, I'm convinced his trajectory was far too low. The Air Force man had practically zero penetration and there's no reason he should have made this block. Kyle rebounded nicely and booted a 51-yard kick later in the game, and was very good from the kickoff tee, so this may have just been another case of the first-kick jitters.

Looking Forward to Navy

Since we are facing another service academy, it is not surprising that they are similar to the last service academy, but Notre Dame will have its chances on Saturday.

From the kickoff spot, Austin Grebe has taken all 36 of Navy's kickoffs this season, booting them for 2,273 yards, an average of 63.1 with 12 touchbacks. That is exactly 1/3 touchbacks to kickoffs. This is a whole third better than Air Force, so George Atkinson III better be ready to run and the kick return unit had better be ready to block. The longest return against them all season has been 37 yards, indicating to me that, like Air Force, they are very disciplined on the coverage unit. On average, Navy is allowing 20.6 yards per return.

Navy's kick returners are about average to mediocre. Marcus Thomas has taken the bulk of the kick returns this season, taking 11 of their 15 for 229 yards, an average of 20.8 with a long of 30. Quentin Ezell has taken 2 returns for 7 yards, an average of 3.5 per return, Geoffrey Whiteside took 1 for 18 yards and Demond Brown took 1 for 28 yards.

In the punt game, Pablo Beltran is Navy's punter and he is a good one. He has 24 punts on the year (a surprisingly low amount) for 1,025 yards, an average of 42.7 per punt. He has a long of 62, 3 touchbacks, 6 fair caught, and 8 landing inside the 20. Now pay attention to that--Navy has only allowed 6 fair catches all season. However, only 6 punts have been returned. BUT, these 6 went for 51 yards, an average of 8.5, with a long of 33. TJ Jones should have opportunities to return something on Saturday and the return team should be ready.

Navy's punt returns are probably the most surprising/mediocre part of all of their special teams. Navy has only returned 7 punts all year for 27 yards, an average of 5.3 per return with a long of 16. If you take out that 16 yard return, Navy has averaged a mediocre 1.8 per return. Shawn Lynch has taken all 7 of the returns.

Next to the punt return, Navy's field goal kicker is the weakest part of their special teams. Nick Sloan, Navy's kicker, is only 5 for 8 on the season, good enough for 62.5%. His makes are from 23, 33, 24, 40, and 30. His misses are from 32, 29, and 38. This tells me that he either does not have a strong leg or that Navy does not let him kick from long distances. Furthermore, his short misses tell me that he is extremely spotty. From relatively close in (23 and 24), he is 100%, but outside of that, he is VERY mediocre. None of his kicks have been blocked so I would think that ND has the upper hand so long as they can force field goal opportunities.

Now, Navy's long kick return came against Toledo. Their longest punt return came against Delaware. The longest kick return they allowed came against Delaware as well. And the longest punt return they allowed also came against Toledo. These two games were huge special teams swings for both teams. I could not watch the Delaware game so I will be unable to show you their longest punt return they have and the longest kick return they have allowed. To compensate, I will show you a 5-yard punt return against Toledo and a 36-yard kick return allowed against Duke.

Navy Kick Coverage vs. Duke

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While the game was sparsely attended, the field was full, and from this angle, you can see Navy's coverage team holding their lanes. Duke, similar to Air Force from my observations, is engaging the Navy coverage team rather early--at around the 30 to 35 yard lines. Duke's return man catches the ball at the 2 and makes his way up.

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For the most part, Duke blocked this terrifically, minus the missed block on the outside. There is a small hole here and Duke's return man has a blocker ahead of him. Every Navy player is engaged except for the man on the 23 and the safety valve on the right side of the screen.

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Duke's return man hit the hole at speed and is already at the 25, making this a successful return. Navy, to their credit, did a good job of shedding the blocks downfield and recovering. You can see their safety valves are already headed towards the sidelines to cut off the angle.

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Navy's kicker ended up making this tackle, and to his credit, did a good job of not overpursuing and staying home, letting the Duke return man come to him. Gerbe was flagged for a horse-collar tackle here but the replays showed he actually grabbed the back of the return man's jersey, making it a good tackle and a bad call. A subsequent personal foul flag on Duke offset the two fouls, giving Duke, officially, a 36-yard return.

What do we make of this? Well, Duke did an excellent job of holding their blocks, allowing for their return man to break it to the outside. At the same time, Navy was very disciplined, did not overpursue, and shed their blocks after the return man broke the return upfield. The lesson here is that ND needs to hold their blocks. George has the speed to have a big return and so long as he hits top speed quickly and doesn't slow down and ND's return team holds their blocks, he can have some success on Saturday.

Navy Kick Return vs. Toledo

Now, Navy was actually rather prolific against Toledo in the Kick Return department. Thomas, the regular return man, had 2 returns for 30 yards. Demond Brown had his 28 yarder in this game as well. I am going to show you Thomas's first 30-yard return below.

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Thomas fields this ball about a yard deep in the endzone. Because of the camera angle, I cannot see how their return team is doing upfield.

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Now, somewhat surprising to me is that there are unblocked Toledo guys in the picture. At the top of the screen, one Navy return blocker has to account for two men and in the middle hole that has developed, there are multiple Toledo guys waiting for the return man. Most of them are at the 20-yard line, which raises the question of how Thomas was able to get this ball out to the 30. Let's take a look.

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It is hard to tell from the mass of humanity in the middle of the field but Thomas is actually at the 20 right in the middle of all of it. It was a small hole that the Navy return unit set up but Thomas made the most of it and overran the Toledo players waiting for him. This was a combination of minor overpursuit, slow reaction from Toledo, and Navy sticking with blocks. If they weren't blocking people in the last picture, the return team found guys to block in this one.

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Thomas made first contact with a Toledo player at the 26, making this a fantastic return for him. He impressively dragged multiple tacklers all the way out to the 30.

What to make of this? Well, in my opinion, Toledo's kickoff coverage is terrible, so there may not be much to take away. The important notes are that Navy did not have great discipline on this return to start off with, as Toledo had Thomas dead-to-rights when they were lined up at the 20. Unfortunately for them, Toledo reacted far too slowly to Thomas and to his credit, Thomas ran like a man possessed. ND needs to be aware of this and maintain their lanes, and discipline, if they want to have success on Saturday.

Navy Punt vs. Toledo

Now going into it, I thought that this would be a good return to show because of the yards. After looking at the box score, it turns out that Toledo benefitted from an illegal block. Navy declined the penalty as accepting it would have allowed Toledo to run one more play (it was at halftime). Anyways, let's take a look and see what happened.

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Toledo caught the ball at the 9 and you can already see the block-in-the-back on #27 on the contain man. This block allowed Toledo to cut the ball to the outside. If there's a teaching moment for Notre Dame here, Navy has ZERO men to the outside, (bottom of the field) and outside contain is absent. If ND can block the outside contain, TJ might have a chance.

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Reedy made it into open field and has blockers ahead of him. Yes, this was benefitted by a massively illegal block, but it just goes to show you what can happen if you legally block the outside contain man.

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Reedy made it out to the 40 after dodging some home run tackles from Navy's coverage team.

Teaching points from this? If ND can get the outside contain man, TJ has a shot. Furthermore, take a look at the above screenshots: Toledo has MULTIPLE players looking for guys to block. I mean, just take a look at the last screenshot; there are two toledo players at the bottom of the screen doing absolutely nothing. In the second screenshot, there are a couple. If ND can get the contain man, hold blocks, and if TJ can run like the wind, anything is possible.

Navy Punt Return vs. Toledo

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Shawn Lynch caught this ball at the 30 and has room to run up the sidelines. Toledo has 3 guys unblocked downfield, though.

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Toledo's coverage team did a great job covering this. Now, to their credit, I think, given the fact that this was late in the game, Navy came with a punt block. Still, no Navy return men blocked anybody, making this a good chance for ND in this game to take advantage of the field position game. Hopefully it doesn't come to that on Saturday and we see another blowout.

As always, I welcome comments below. Thank you for reading.

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