What's Wrong with Notre Dame's Punt Return Game?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Fair catches, shield protection, and the world of punt returning in 2013. What can be done?


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"IRISH SPECIAL TEAMS UNDER BRIAN KELLY HAVE BEEN TERRIBLE."

Is that true?

It's not quite fair to say that the Irish special teams have been terrible when you take into account all of the different aspects that go into making up those varied units.

For example, since 2010 using traditional statistics Notre Dame has been 52nd nationally in opponent punt return average and 57nd in opponent kick return average. They've given up just one touchdown on punt or kick returns---in 2010 against Tulsa---and that came in a year where Irish opponents totaled just 18 yards on their other 13 punt returns with Notre Dame finishing 21st nationally in return average.

Kick return has been a little below average at 68th nationally from 2010-12 and punting worse at 84th nationally, although punting has improved every year since Kelly took over largely due to Ben Turk moving from a sophomore to senior. Add in field goal kicking which has hit a solid 53 of 68 attempts (77.9%) over the past three years---including some very clutch moments in 2012 and a near perfect season in 2010---and I believe outside of punt return the special teams have been, at worse serviceable, and at times quite good.

Using Football Outsiders' FEI Special Teams Efficiency the Irish have finished 12th, 53rd, and 90th nationally over the past 3 seasons. That's almost perfectly average and pretty interesting to see Notre Dame go 12-1 with a relatively poor special teams rating last season.

Football Outsiders' ND Special Teams Rankings 2010-12

STAT 2012 2011 2010
FG Efficiency 67 91 3
Kick Return Efficiency 105 6 60
Punt Efficiency 54 81 47
Kickoff Efficiency 35 34 14
Punt Return Efficiency 103 108 49

But those punt returns! They've been 101st, 112th, and 120th last season in average return yardage. That's really bad, but why?

First, it's obvious that Kelly and his staff haven't put much emphasis on returning punts*. We can debate whether this is a smart decision but not putting emphasis on returning punts does not mean the rest of special teams are being neglected. I'd argue the two positions that have seen the least production or improvements over the past 3 years (punt returner & quarterback) have also been the least stable from a roster perspective. Kelly's first returner Armando Allen was doing well but got injured, Riddick crapped the bed during the home opener in 2011, and the job was held by a true freshman in 2012. Not exactly a set up for success and he'll head into his 4th season in South Bend with yet another new punt returner.

*As bad as the Irish punt return team has been for 3 years the differential over 36 games has only been -129 yards or -3.3 yards per game. That really gives you a sense of how small of a part punt returns have in many games. That's roughly giving the opponent a 2.5 inch head start per offensive drive of a game.

Second, punt return needs better blocking. I'm not arguing that it doesn't, but rather there are other issues to address beyond the blocking that we'll discuss within this piece.

Third, the proliferation of the shield and spread punt protection plus the rule change in 2009 regarding downfield blockers have completely changed the way teams return punts in college. In short, there is more stress on teams (like Notre Dame) that don't have a confident, experienced, and productive returner which in turn leads to a lot less punt returns, more fair catches, and more downed balls.

Brian Kelly has mentioned how the new rule and punting schemes have given the Irish some problems and I'm sure that's where a lot of the de-emphasis comes from. That doesn't necessarily mean the team practices punt return any less but I think it affects Kelly's in-game decision making which I think is a huge part of the "problem." He may be thinking the rules don't encourage punt returns, you don't have a premier returner, so why try to force something that's of little value in the modern game?

~~~

Now, let's take a look at the old punt formations before looking at the new formations in the game today.

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This nice grainy screenshot is from the 1987 Notre Dame-Michigan State game right before Tim Brown takes back the first of 2 punt return touchdowns on his way to winning the Heisman. The Irish are lined up in a block formation---which they will back out of at the snap---and State has countered the way teams did in those days: The two gunners have attached to the line, the wings are just behind the line protecting the A-gap, and the personal protector is where he always would be 5 yards behind the line.

If you watch this return you can see how passive Michigan State is coming off the ball and you would expect that with 19 players jammed into such a small area with little room to move.

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Using traditional punt protection schemes of the day there was little State could do in this situation. They load up the box to protect their kicker and prevent a block but when Notre Dame backs out at the snap the Irish have 4 players with a head start moving back and ready to block for Tim Brown. The State punter is about to kick the ball and the Spartans don't have a single player past the line of scrimmage yet.

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Here's the pre-snap alignment from the 2000 Notre Dame-Nebraska game right before Joey Getherall takes one to the house. Again, it's a very traditional punt formation for Nebraska with 8 in the box to block Notre Dame's 8 men at the line of scrimmage with gunners flanked out wide on each side of the field.

This is very similar to the formations most teams use in the NFL today where the pro rules state that only the outside eligible receivers can move further than 1-yard down field before the ball is punted. Below is a screenshot from a Texans-Colts games in 2011 that shows the same formation.

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If you watch the Getherall return against Nebraska the Irish are in good position at the kick.

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Nebraska has their gunners racing down field at the time of the punt but the Irish have pulled back a defender (who is out of the screen behind the referee) and the Cornhuskers have no other players passed the line of scrimmage.

Now let's take a look at a post-2009 punt formation with the new rule in effect.

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This is from the 2012 season opener in Ireland against Navy and the Midshipmen are in the modern shield punt formation, named so because of the 3 players lined up roughly 8 yards behind the line protecting the punter.

Unlike the NFL there are no rules about players moving down field before the ball is punted in college football, per the changes that came into effect for the 2009 season^^^(see bottom of post for more info). As such, you can see Navy has placed 7 players nice and wide across the line and spread the field making it far more difficult for Notre Dame to block.

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Contrast this screenshot with the ones above and the differences are shockingly stark. The Irish send 3 players towards the shield but get nowhere near the kicker, and while it's still 7 on 7 blocking with the other players that were at the line of scrimmage look at how much penetration Navy has down field! The ball isn't even off the punter's foot and a Middie is already 7 yards down field and 5 other Middies around 5 yards down field.

What the shield punt protection does is quite genius, actually. Without the rules constricting player movement down field before the punt, the kicking team is able to turn the tables and be aggressive in coverage while not sacrificing or compromising their protection of the punter.

In this example Notre Dame has to send players toward the shield to protect against a fake and you can see from the moment of the ball being punted that it's really difficult to get near the punter to block anything. It's not impossible to block a punt, but it makes it awfully difficult barring a complete mental error which was the case in 2010 when Robert Blanton blocked Utah's punt and returned it for a momentous touchdown.

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The field side member of the shield simply let Blanton go and paid dearly for such a mistake.

You may say, "Well Notre Dame just has to block better." Well yeah, I've cited that above, but it's easier said than done. This new rule change makes it awfully hard for any team to block effectively. Even with better athletes---as Notre Dame certainly has in a game against Navy---it is difficult to block a player running down field with so much room to work. What's more, the shield punt and rule book have allowed lighter and quicker players to see the field on punt coverage and they are always more difficult to block than lumbering 240 pound linebackers. It's basically like watching 7 receivers go up against 7 corners and the brutal truth is that the aggressive receivers usually win those battles.

So what are some solutions to counter this new rule with 7 gunners barreling down field?

How about getting yourself a dynamic punt returner?

Seems easy, but of course it's not, and again that helps explain why Brian Kelly has been so conservative with punt returns because the Irish haven't found that player on the roster yet. Everyone loves to remember the punt returns from the Lou Holtz days but it kind of helps to have Tim Brown, Ricky Watters, Rocket Ismail, Allen Rossum, and Autry Denson on your team. Things weren't quite as electric with the talented but troubled Mike Miller as returner.

We are so used to traditional punt formations so we tend to think the best return units are those that are disciplined with their blocking, open up nice wide running lanes, and give the returner plenty of time to make decisions when the ball arrives. While that is still certainly part of the equation the modern formations are putting much more emphasis on the returner "making things happen" and running past players in coverage, blocked or not. Punt returns have always relied heavily on the guy catching the ball unlike say rushing the ball where an offensive line can truly make a huge difference for an "average" running back.

~~~

Let's use some examples from a few of the best punt returners in 2012 to highlight the threat of a dynamic return man.

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Here's Ace Sanders against Georgia with 2 players in his face right as the ball arrives. This really isn't any different than a lot of Notre Dame's returns yet Sanders actually FUMBLES THIS BALL and still dances enough to make it to the end zone.

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This is Justin Brown from Oklahoma with 3 coverage men crashing down on him. It didn't matter, touchdown.

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Here's Rashad Greene from Florida State with 1 player from each side coming down hard on him when the ball arrives. Like the other examples he still turned it into a touchdown.

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Above is the 4th quarter punt return touchdown (the last from an Irish player) by Golden Tate in 2009 against Pitt during the first year of the new punting rules. This is the exact moment he catches the ball, he has a player right in his face, and yet Tate makes a great play and takes it to the house.

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This is Michael Floyd's punt return after the first series of the Champs Sports Bowl. Not the best blocking in the world and yet again a playmaker makes a guy miss and runs for a big gain---the longest return of the Kelly era.

Notre Dame had opportunities like this to return punts in 2012 (and in 2010-11) but in many instances the returner is not making things happen on their own.

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Here's Davonte Neal against Purdue this past fall as he catches the ball. You can see the blocking wasn't good but Neal has a 7-yard cushion to do SOMETHING but instead he backpedals, and gets taken down by the first defender for a 2-yard loss.


No one is asking the returner to reach the end zone but this return should be an automatic 5-yard gain at the very least.

Here's another return from the same Purdue game:

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Ace Sanders or Golden Tate will make this first guy miss, but Neal doesn't and then promptly runs into his own man for a 5 yard loss.


Here's another from later in the season against BYU:

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For modern standards and certainly for Notre Dame's low standards this is decent blocking and enough room to work. If Neal** had caught this ball and immediately cut to his left a big return might have ensued but instead he misjudges the ball, backpedals right into the coverage and is taken down for another negative yardage play.


**Shout out to Tom Hammond for calling Neal "DaVaris Neal." We're going to miss you, Tom!

I'm not laying all the blame at the feet of a true freshman returner, and Notre Dame still needs to do a better job blocking, but I don't think we'll see any significant success with the Irish punt return game until an electric athlete is catching the ball. At some point someone is going to go back there and rip off a few big returns, turn a bunch of these negative yardage plays that have plagued Notre Dame for 2 years into positive returns, and the whole punt team is going to be so much better all without better blocking.

I charted every single punt return from the Kelly era, in addition to analyzing the punt returns in 6 games from last season, and Neal had 17 opportunities to do something on plays in which the ball was not downed, kicked out of bounds, or a touchback.

Of those 17 opportunities 8 resulted in a fair catch and 4 resulted in negative yardage---you saw 3 of those negative plays above. I gave each return a rating from 1 (absolutely no chance for a return) to 10 (near perfect set up for a return) and 13 out of 17 opportunities had a rating of 4 or worse. That suggests poor blocking from Notre Dame but I bet if you tracked the top return teams there'd be very similar figures except the best returners are turning ratings of 3 and 4 into 8 to 10 yard returns on a regular basis, while Notre Dame almost never gains a single yard with those opportunities. Heck, Notre Dame only has 10 total returns of 8+ yards over the past 3 years and 3 of those came from Michael Floyd and Armando Allen.

Let's dig a little deeper.

4 of those 8 fair catches cited above from Neal came with the opponent punting in Notre Dame territory. As the stats will show near the bottom of this post those punts are basically non-returnable. If you want a better punt return team it's better to get the opponent to punt on their side of the field.

Of the remaining 4 punts 2 were clearly no-brainer fair catches.

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Here against Stanford the Cardinal lined up in a hybrid formation (3-man shield but with 2 outside gunners and 5 men in the box) and Notre Dame actually does a really good job blocking....except the gunner on the bottom of the screen absolutely smoked the Irish defender and was already waiting when the ball arrived to Neal.

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Against BYU the Irish faced a 4th and 3 deciding to go with a safe punt return to protect against a fake. The result is that Neal is surrounded by every single player that was at the line of scrimmage when the ball arrives.

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You can see Notre Dame sent 4 players towards the shield and kept 3 more players protecting the first down line, while a fourth is protecting the field side a few yards back in case of a fake. Clearly, the Irish had no intentions of returning this punt.

The other 2 fair catches weren't so cut and dry.

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Here's Neal receiving the ball against Navy and Notre Dame is in the same punt safe alignment as the above play against BYU. Except this time the punt isn't that great, and Neal is able to run up on the ball without being totally swarmed. This is one of those gray areas. If you don't have that dynamic returner this is a fair catch but if you do he might run up and get 10 yards out of this. This also highlights Kelly's weird decision making with punt returns because I see no reason to be so afraid of a fake punt when leading by 33 points late in the 4th quarter.

The final fair catch was one that I think has to be returned. Here's the full video:

Notre Dame is against BYU again and has the Cougars backed up deep into their own territory. Against the shield punt the Irish send 3 players and 7 others block at the line of scrimmage. The BYU punter absolutely crushes the punt (63 yards from his foot to Neal's hands) which should set up a nice return.

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The only problem is that the Irish defender blitzed the shield from the A gap and left the snapper a clean break down field. As you can see the snapper already moved 10 yards when the ball is about to be booted.

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When the ball arrives the snapper is coming right at Neal. Now, this may have been the strategy employed by Kelly and the coaching staff. They might have liked their chances of a 6'4" 240 linebacker snapping the ball and then having to run all the way downfield to make a tackle---even if that linebacker isn't blocked. I guess it depends upon your viewpoint, some might say this isn't Neal's fault because of blocking but others (and I include myself in this group) say that Neal has to take this punt and make a guy 70 pounds heavier try and tackle him in space after he's just sprinted 60 yards.

The top return teams have dynamic athletes who make a play there and Notre Dame hasn't had that with Neal and Goodman. Perhaps Neal would have turned into that type of player after his freshman season but alas he has transferred. It's a small sample size but something should be said for Floyd and Allen totaling more punt return yardage on just 4 combined returns than the combined efforts of Goodman and Neal across their 43 returns.

The end result is that it's not simply about blocking better as many people complain about ad nauseum. There are a lot of factors involved of which having a major playmaker as the return man may be the most important. Having a defense that forces more 3 & out's deep inside their opponents territory and less in Irish territory will certainly help too. Of the 17 punts examined only 3 were from inside an opponents 20-yard line---the one immediately above which should have been returned while the other 2 were returned for 11 and 8 yards respectively.

So what's the solution for the Irish? In order: Get a dynamic returner, be more aggressive on defense and in returns, block better, worry less about fakes, and trap opponents deep more often.

Additional Notre Dame Punt Return Stats under Brian Kelly

  • Irish forced 80 punts in 2010, 75 in 2011, and 68 in 2012. Pretty interesting since the defense has improved each year so you'd think these numbers would be reversed. I'd think forcing turnovers and a bend-but-don't-break defense have a lot to do with those numbers. Sometimes you'll run into a team with nothing to lose and who will not punt much in a game like BC who only punted twice this past year.
  • 39.4 percent of all punts were fair catches. Goodman fair caught 43.4 percent and Neal 33.8 percent of their respective punt opportunities. FC Goodman lives on forever!
  • 22.8 percent of all punts were actually returned, including 3 fumbles. It really shows how little reps we're talking about. Not a ton of opportunities to turn things around.
  • Goodman returned 19.1 percent of his punt opportunities while Neal was at 30.8 percent.
  • 9.8 percent of all punts were kicked out of bounds.
  • 19.7 percent of all punts were downed.
  • 7.6 percent of all punts were touchbacks.
  • 8.6 percent of Goodman's returns went for negative yardage while 8.8 percent of Neal's returns went for negative yardage.
  • The Irish went 47 total punts in 2011---through 8 full games---without registering a positive return. Michael Floyd's 41-yard return in the Champs Sports Bowl shown above finally broke the dry spell.

Returns when opponent punting from:

  • 20-goal line: 44 yards on 8 returns (5.5 avg.), 30 total punts.
  • 21-29 yard line: 99 yards on 14 returns (7.0 avg.) 43 total punts.
  • 30-39 yard line: -16 yards on 14 returns (-1.1 avg.), 54 total punts.
  • 40-49 yard line: 11 yards on 8 returns (1.3 average), 43 total punts.
  • 50 & in ND territory: 21 yards on 2 returns (10.5 average), 54 total punts.

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^^^The new rules are definitely having an impact on Notre Dame's unproductive punt return, as well as other teams, but it's only part of the story. Taking the averages from 2005-2008 before the rule change versus the averages in the 4 years since, punt return touchdowns are down 11.8 percent. That includes 2007's 63 touchdowns which may be a bit of an anomaly---if you include the 2004 numbers in the averages punt return touchdowns are down 15.8 percent.

Using the same 4-year figures teams averaging 9.0+ yards per return are down 6 percent. In 2007-08 an average of 38 individuals had punt return averages of 10+ yards but over the past two seasons that average is down to 29, a drop of 32.1 percent. What's more, with the 4-year averages (2005-08 vs. 2009-12) teams with 25+ returns on the season are down 31.8 percent.

That last figure really is the key stat. Using a comparison between the two seasons of 2007 and 2012 overall punt return averages are down just 6.1 percent, which is noteworthy, but the volume of punt returns has tumbled enormously since 2009.

Using the '07 and '12 seasons as a comparison total punt returns are down 14.6 percent even with 66 more games played across the country in 2012. Total return yards are down 18.9 percent. Average returns per game are down 18.4 percent, and average punt return yards per game are down 22.4 percent.

So while punt returns are a little less productive today the big issue seems to be way less punt returns---for goodness sake John Goodman was Notre Dame's primary returner in 2011 and only totaled 8 returns for the entire season! The 2009 rule change is likely playing a part in this decrease but it could also be a mixture of other factors like better (or worse) punters, more efficient offenses, and teams shunning punting the ball as a matter of principle anytime they get near midfield. There are so many moving parts to a punt return---even facing a crappy punter means you probably have to fair catch a greater percentage of punts, and a good punter is going to kick out of bounds more often---that it seems like a crap shoot sometimes. Having a dynamic returner with all those moving parts certainly would help turn things around for the Irish.

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