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Special Teams: Southern Cal Review, Air Force Preview

We didn't tackle well today, but we made up for it by not blocking.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports


Winners win, and the Irish won on Saturday, much to the delight of the Notre Dame fanbase worldwide. I love beating our rival and so does Brian Kelly. While many would like to forget the offensive ineptitude from the second half on Saturday, an equal amount would also probably like to forget the special teams miscues. There were several. Let's take a look and see how it went.

ND Kickoff

Because of the low score, there were not many kickoffs--only 3 for the Irish--and Brindza took them all, booting them for 195 yards with one touchback. Of the two that were returned, one can be described as a failure of coverage. That one was taken by Kevon Seymour for 33 yards. The second return came at the hands of Nelson Agholor, the bane of the ND special teams on Saturday. Surprisingly, he only took it back for 20 yards and lost 10 of those due to a penalty, giving the Trojans terrible field position. Let's take a look at both returns.

Seymour Kick Return


Seymour fielded this one about a yard deep in the endzone. What is somewhat concerning to me is that there are no ND players in the picture and Southern Cal has 8 guys ready to block.


Uh oh. Devin Butler correctly held his lane, along with Lo Wood. However note the fact that there are FIVE ND players on the right side of the top hash. This means, quite simply, that the ND players did not keep their lanes. What I think happened here was Kyle kicked a directional kick towards the sidelines and the ND kick team overcompensated for its placement. This is wrong. Regardless of where a kick lands, a kicking team NEEDS to maintain their lanes and THEN adjust towards the return man, not leave their lanes before the ball is even caught, which is what I think happened here. I mean, just look at John Turner. Poor John Turner is left here alone on an island on the opposite hash at the 25-yard line with two Southern Cal blockers to lead for Seymour. That's very poor coverage within the first couple of seconds of the kick.

Hat tips to Kendall Moore, John Turner, and Eilar Hardy. Moore and Hardy saw where the kick was headed and took lanes to prevent a long return. Turner stayed to the outside and forced Seymour to take the ball inside towards ND players. Hardy here really saved the play, taking an excellent angle and bringing Seymour down eventually. While Seymour shed the tackle from Hardy, he was forced to stop and this allowed other ND players to help on the tackle. Overall, this was very poor coverage by the Irish and a failure to stay in lanes. Hardy, Turner, and Moore all should get cookies for preventing disaster.

Agholor Kick Return


Agholor fielded this ball about 3 yards deep in the endzone. You can see here that ND, like the kick before, has already left their lanes but it is not as bad as the last kick. Even better, there are multiple ND guys in the picture. This also leads me to believe that the kick was a lot higher than the previous kick. Devin Butler is running untouched towards Agholor, for example, with Lo Wood maintaining outside contain this time. I think if Southern Cal had tried to take this to the right side like the first kick, it may have been a similar result. Instead, they ran right to where the ND team was waiting for them.


Absolutely fantastic job by Butler here. Instead of running past the return man, he broke down and let Agholor make a move. This is how you are supposed to do it. Great job, cookie for him.


Unfortunately for Devin, Agholor is much faster than he is. Agholor turned on the jets and made it up the sidelines. I would be upset about outside contain but I think Ben Councell would have made a play on Agholor had he not been tackled--he is actually underneath a Southern Cal blocker on the ground at the 21-22-yard lines. Hardy is again in good position at the 26 to stop anything more (good outside contain) and the tackle by the Southern Cal player resulted in a holding penalty. The Irish were left with good field position, and YoYoCoachO, after calling a handful of plays, was forced to punt; BK and the Irish elected to run out the clock afterwards. Overall, it's hard to gauge here whether ND screwed up because of the penalty but I think if the hold did not happen, Agholor would have been bottled up before the 25.

As a whole, I would have liked to have seen the Irish make better plays on kick coverage and this was certainly a regression for them. They were blocked too easily and failed to maintain proper lanes. Hopefully they clean this up in games going forward.

ND Kick Return

Again, the low score rendered the number of returns low. I noted in my Southern Cal Preview that Andre Heidari does not have a strong leg on kickoffs and he somewhat surprised me on Saturday. His first kick, the opening kickoff of the game, went for a touchback. His second was much more in line with his average placement, landing at the 3-yard line with George Atkinson III taking it back 20 yards to the 23. His last was VERY short, landing at the 16-yard line, with George Atkinson III returning it 15 yards to the 31. Let's take a look at George's return.

Atkinson Kick Return


Atkinson caught this ball in front of the goal line and took it out.


And here the return was lost. Justin Utupo absolutely wiffed on his man, allowing him to run in untouched on Atkinson. Atkinson's only hope was to use speed or juke him, but a juke would result in a loss of speed, giving Southern Cal much needed time to cover.


I will concede that George was forced to make a tough play but it is plays like this that make me frustrated at his return abilities. He just does not run full speed on every return and tries to look for holes or make moves. Look at Agholor's return; he had Devin Butler right in front of him and simply ran by him. George let the Southern Cal player come to him and made a move to shed him. If he gets by this guy, he has open field in front of him and a whole slew of blockers. He juked a handful more times while Southern Cal converged and went down just past the 20 yard line. Poor return and this shows the impact that a hesitant return man plus a missed blocking assignment can do. Two players did not perform as they should and this was the result.

ND Punt

Here is what everybody has been waiting for. ND's punt unit performed abysmally on Saturday night. Kyle Brindza got the bulk of the work, booting 7 punts for 260 yards, a mediocre average of 37.1, a long of 51, and one inside the 20. His punt that landed inside the 20 was a coffin corner that went out of bounds at the 5-yard line and was arguably his best punt of the season. Alex Wulfeck booted one punt for 32 yards, placing it inside the 20 at the 6-yard line, a perfect placement as well. While Marqise Lee was out, Nelson Agholor filled in for him and did not miss a beat. He returned 4 of Kyle's 7 punts for 100 yards, averaging 25 yards per return. He had a long return of 48 yards. His returns went for (in order) 48, 16, 34, and 2 yards. I am a glutton for misery so I am going to go through all 4 returns below.

Agholor 1st Punt Return

Let's get the party started.


And already we have problems. ND doesn't have enough men down the field covering the punt--only one is within striking distance of Agholor and he is engaged. Even worse, EIGHT guys on ND's punt team are to the outside of the hash. The punt was directional and like the first kick, many of them compensated for its flight. However, they absolutely positively CANNOT leave their lanes because of the return threat from Agholor. He has the entire top side of the field wide open with multiple blockers available and the only way ND would stop this is if Agholor tried to run forward, which he did not.


It's hard to fault James Onuwalu for at least trying to make a play but he took a terrible angle and instead of attempting to force Agholor back down the sidelines, he missed, was blocked, and Agholor had the entire top side of the field to run to. Notable problem players on this punt: Joe Schmidt, Kendall Moore, Matthias Farley, Scott Daly, and Lo Wood. At the time, I wanted to place most of the blame on Lo Wood, as he was responsible for outside contain on this play and failed miserably. However, the fact that he had seven of his teammates inside the hash didn't help.


Another poor angle taken by one of the safety valves--Alex Welch--but to me, it is not surprising that Agholor blew right by him. Welch is a TE and Agholor should be fast enough to make this play. There was a debatable block in the back on Scott Daly but to me it looked like it came from the side after watching the replay. Farley, you can see at the bottom, is taking a safety route to try and stem the already disastrous coverage.


Hat tip to Kyle Brindza here. Just before this shot, Kyle forced Agholor to make a juke move, which absolutely stopped his speed, allowing the rest of the team to catch up from behind. John Turner eventually made the tackle. This was the worst punt coverage ND's punt team has had this season and it is a miracle that Agholor didn't return this all the way and that Southern Cal only got 3 points off of it.

NBC actually did a pretty good job of highlighting the mistakes on the play.

The second video actually shows how all but one ND player was inside the hash. The writing was on the wall the minute Agholor caught the ball.

Agholor 2nd Punt Return


Much better spacing by the coverage team here. Joe Schmidt is in a prime place to tackle Agholor and is already forcing him to the sidelines. The primary concern on this, like with the first punt, is that there is no outside contain to the sidelines. Southern Cal's return unit has effectively sealed him off.


And because the outside contain was lost, coupled with good moves from Agholor and poor angles taken by Joe Schmidt and John Turner, Agholor now has the sidelines wide open. Sigh.


Kudos to Scott Daly, Matt Hegarty, and Alex Welch for all taking great angles to force Agholor down. While the first return was a dumpster fire, this return was worse in my opinion. I think it was worse for the simple fact that ND could have tackled him immediately but overpursued and took poor angles. Good safety play here prevented another disaster. Southern Cal would go 3 and out on the next series.

Agholor 3rd Punt Return


I apologize if you can hear me swearing through your computer monitor and speakers. This is another return that had disaster written all over it, as there is absolutely ZERO outside contain to the top side of the field. Fortunately for ND, Agholor fumbled this return, giving the Irish precious seconds to recover.


F#%* (kicks dirt).


Another good safety play by Hegarty and a good angle from Welch as a safety valve. Hegarty didn't make the tackle--Agholor actually ran right around him--but Hegarty slowed him down, which was enough for Welch to recover.


What is actually good about this picture is you can see ND had guys taking angles to prevent a touchdown. However, the damage was already done. This punt was almost a carbon copy of the first and had almost the same result. This made me wonder who exactly was supposed to have outside contain. I looked at the replay and outside contain, I think, was supposed to have come from James Onuwalu. You will note his location in the third picture above. Overall, another failure on coverage.

Agholor 4th Punt Return


Here, Brindza booted it and it basically landed right on the sidelines. Agholor was credited with a 2 yard return but it was a good punt by Kyle and, for the first time all night, good coverage by the Irish. What can we learn from this? I hate to Monday Morning Quarterback coaching decisions but after Agholor's first return, I would have instructed Brindza to just boot it out of bounds. It was clear from the gameplan what the goal was: kick the ball to the sidelines but not out. None of Brindza's punts were to the middle of the field. However, this only worked 1 out of the 4 punts. The Irish are not this bad at punt coverage and save for Ty Montgomery at Stanford, are not going to face as dynamic a return team as Southern Cal for the rest of the season. Thank God.

As for Kyle's form in the aforementioned punts, he was still too vertical but I decided to save space and focus on the returns only, as they were the real problem. Whether Kyle booted it 35 yards or 50 yards, the coverage unit broke down completely and in my opinion, it didn't matter what his form looked like in this game. Hopefully this doesn't happen again. As for what I think ND was trying to do strategy-wise, they managed to do it once all game, and I think it actually resulted in Kyle's best punt of the year. Quite literally, it was one of the best punts of the season, if not the best, for Kyle. Screenshots do not do it justice. Watch the video.

The deal with directional punts is that a punter has to adjust his hips and approach all while keeping the 2.3 second timeframe to get the ball off. Kyle tried to do it on Saturday, I think, but only managed to successfully do it once. You can technically count the 2-yard return as well so actually, twice.

ND Punt Return

I noted in the Preview that Kris Albarado, Southern Cal's punter, was very good and he did not disappoint. He booted 6 punts for 224 yards with an average of 37.3. While that average is not good, 3 of his punts landed inside the 20 and TJ was only able to return 1 of them for 5 yards. Let's take a look at the lone return.

TJ Jones Punt Return


Believe it or not, this is the point of the catch. It was a very short punt and TJ caught this on the run. As you can see, he has open field but for one recovering Southern Cal player to his left. This will be great if Kendall Moore (at the 46) blocks his man and Onuwalu (at the 49) seals the outside.


And this one, unfortunately, has to go down as another failure for me because Kendall Moore missed his block. If he gets his man, TJ may have taken this to the house, as you can see that Onuwalu is blocking his man towards the sidelines. This is really unfortunate because, like ASU, it had potential but was ruined by a missed block.

ND and Southern Cal Field Goal

For yet another game, the ND field goal kicking unit failed to take the field except for extra points. Brindza possibly had a chance for one on the opening drive of the game but the coaching staff opted to go for the touchdown with the ball inside the 1-yard line. While this did not succeed, I agreed with the decision to go for it at the time (maybe not the play call but I know punting and kicking, not much else admittedly) and the failure to convert DID leave Southern Cal with terrible field position.

And not to call myself Nostradamus or anything, but in my Preview, I said the following about Andre Heidari and field goals:

On the kicking side, Andre Heidari is Southern Cal’s kicker. He is 5-8 on the year, with makes from 20, 52, 22, 25, and 45. He missed both of his attempts vs. Washington State from 32 and 43 and also missed a 46 yarder against Utah State.The 45-yard make against Arizona was Heidari’s first 40-49-yard make of the year....

If the Irish can keep his attempts to long distances, they have a shot to take advantage of the poor special teams play.

Not to say "I told you so," but I told you so. Heidari missed every single attempt he took from inside the 40-49-yard lines, missing from both 40 and 46. Neither kick fell short but neither kick was on target. The Irish certainly capitalized on these misses, as the Southern Cal coaching staff, late in the game, had the ball on the 31-yard line and opted to go for it on 4th and 20. They had the ball at the 26 before a false start pushed them back to the 31. If they attempted to kick from either distance, it would have been a 39 and 43 yard attempt respectively. While this would have given the Irish the ball back with 2:20ish to go, this was more than enough time for Southern Cal to get the ball back and possibly attempt a scoring drive. In the game, Southern Cal DID get the ball back with 1:35 to go, driving 39 yards before penalties and the Irish defense stopped them to win the game. Overall, great job me on predicting this one. Cookie for me.

Looking Forward to Air Force

While Air Force's defense may be the worst the Irish face this season, the same cannot be said for their special teams.

Briceton Cannada, arguably the best-named player the Irish will face this season (that was for you Larz), has taken the bulk of the kickoffs for the Falcons this year. He has booted 33 of them for 2,059 yards, an average of 62.4 with 21 touchbacks. Drew Oehrle has taken 2 kicks for 130 yards with 0 touchbacks and Zach Hoffman has taken 1 kickoff for 65 yards, touching it back. So, give or take, Air Force allows a return on every third kick. Not great for the Irish's return chances on Saturday.

Opponents of Air Force have returned 14 kicks for 252 yards, an average of 18 per return, with a long of 35. The long return came from Eric Judge of San Diego State.

Anthony Lacoste is Air Force's primary return man, taking 8 of the 11 returns they have had thus far for 177 yards, an average of 22.1, and a long of 33 against Boise State. This is not great but it is not the worst I have seen. Riley Cannon has 1 return for 10 yards, Sam Gagliano has 1 return for 22 yards, and Devin Rushing has the longest return of the year for Air Force for 42 yards. This came against Wyoming.

On the punt side, David Baska will be taking Air Force's punts, as he is the only punter they have used all season. He has 26 punts for 1089 yards, an average of 41.9, a long of 57, only 3 touchbacks (!), 12 fair caught, and 8 inside the 20. He has no punts blocked yet this season. Baska is a VERY good punter. I would put him in line with some of the top punters that ND has faced this season. What is even more surprising to me is that he has only taken 26 punts on the season. To put that in perspective, Kris Albarado, Southern Cal's punter, had 34 punts COMING INTO SATURDAY'S GAME. That's insane. What I think is the most likely culprit is Air Force's option offense. The offense eats up the clock and likely limits the number of times they have to punt per game. However, when they do, the punts are very good.

For ND's punt returning chances, opponents have only averaged 4 returns all season for 21 yards, an average of 5.2 yards per return. All 21 of these yards came from one punt return. This return was by Randy Uzoma from Nevada. The return was actually fumbled by the return man Joseph Huber, so not much can be made from this. What can be made from these stats are that Air Force's punt coverage team is fantastic, much better than any the Irish have faced thus far.

For field goals, Will Conant is Air Force's field goal kicker and he's probably one of the best ones the Irish will see this season, in my opinion. On the season, he is 9 for 11 with a long of 52 (it donked off the inside of the left upright against SDSU but it was halfway up so it could have gone in from further back). He is 1-1 from 20-29, 4-4 from 30-39, 2-3 from 40-49, and 2-3 from over 50. That's absolutely fantastic. Any chance the Falcons get around the 35-yard line, it's essentially automatic points for them. I don't see the Irish doing much to take advantage of this unless they can get a strong push to maybe speed Conant up. That might be tough as he has had 0 blocked on the year.

As for previews, let's take a look at Lacoste's long return against Boise and San Diego State's long return. I will also throw in some shots of Air Force's punt coverage unit and a 5-yard return from San Diego State as I could not get video from the Nevada game.

Lacoste Kick Return


Lacoste caught this ball at about the 2-3-yard line and has 3 blockers ahead of him. What is surprising to me is that AF's return team is already engaged up field instead of sitting back.


The Air Force blocking is fantastic. Lacoste has a hole here and made a beeline for it. Their only worry should be #30 at the bottom of the screen. The AF player on the 24-yard line needs to turn around and block ahead of him. If he got #30, this could probably have been much longer.


The result now is somewhat surprising to me, as I thought this had a chance to go for much further. Boise State's kickoff team recovered very well and closed the hole extremely quickly. Lacoste is now riding the backs of his blockers to scrape yards.


Lacoste kept chugging his legs and eventually got this ball to the 34-yard line. He had a touch of Atkinson in him on this return. By that, I mean he slowed down to look for a hole. What he did that George doesn't do that often is he kept his legs chugging and got an extra 5 or so yards after being wrapped up here.

San Diego State Kick Return


Cannada took this kickoff and booted it to the goal line. SDSU is in their return and scary for AF, they have no men in view yet.


SDSU's return man has a hole here but he slowed down. It's not that much of a mistake, though, because this hole is pretty obvious.


#9 for SDSU didn't hold his block but SDSU's return man hit the hole with speed. He has a lane to the outside with a blocker ahead.


Air Force did a great job of recovering and sealing off the sidelines. SDSU's return man made the guy at the 30 miss but in doing so, stopped his forward momentum, allowing AF to make the tackle at the 35. This was a great return for SDSU and a rare instance of poor coverage from the Falcons.

Air Force Punt and San Diego State Return


OK this might be a little odd, so I will explain. This is not a screen of the punt formation from SDSU's long return. Inexplicably to me, CBS College Sports decided to do a close-in rear view of every single punt from AF in the 4th quarter, so I took a shot of their formation from AF's first punt of the game. You can see that they are in a spread formation, because only weird teams run the traditional formation in this day and age of college football (hi Michigan!). They have no gunners to the outside, indicating to me that they were afraid of a block or that they were planning on kicking it to the middle of the field. As for David Baska's form, he is similar to Purdue's punter in that he takes his first step to the outside instead of straight-ahead. It is a hybrid-rugby style designed to compensate for his leg swinging across his body. It works for him, as Baska booted 3 of his 5 punts in this game for over 50 yards (52, 52, 54). That's fantastic.


Baska booted this one right over the SDSU return man's head and he caught it on a bounce running backwards. The positive for this, for ND, is that Baska is outkicking his coverage. The obvious negative is that AF is extremely disciplined in punt coverage and has not allowed much in the way of returns against them all season.


Vizzi, SDSU's return man, made some nifty moves, but AF kept him bottled up on the sidelines and tackled him for a very short return.

What do we take from this? Well, the Irish have their work cut out for them in special teams this weekend. They need to block and they need to take advantage of the size discrepancy between them and the Falcons in order to have any success on Saturday. AF's specialists are extremely good and the AF team is extremely disciplined on special teams. Stalk-blocking, sticking to assignments, and discipline will win for the special teams unit on Saturday. What team manages to do that is up for grabs.

As always, I welcome your comments below. Keep calm and punt on.