Hello everyone and welcome to this weeks long installment of the special teams review/preview. I am the same poster but have changed my handle, so calm yourselves; there is not another poster as devoted to special teams play as I am (yet!). As for the game...the see-saw battle on Saturday ended up in Notre Dame's favor. Notre Dame's special teams was also a see-saw; for every positive, there was a negative. Let's take a look.
Kyle Brindza took all 7 kickoffs for the Irish on Saturday, as expected. He booted them 437 yards, an average of 62.4 per kick with only 2 touchbacks. Saturday's game had to be the most damning game in the history of Notre Dame's field condition. Kyle never seemed to get a good plant off the kickoff because of the wet/sloppy conditions and sacrificed force for balance. Kyle's first kickoff of the game landed on the 10-yard line because of a slip, way shorter than his usual kicks. The rest plopped down around the 2-3 yard lines with one going for a touchback. The traction issues definitely had an impact on the return game, as Navy was able to move the ball at will some times on returns. Marcus Thomas, Navy's return man, took all 5 returns for 137 yards with a long of 49, good enough for a 27.4 average. Navy blocked with ease and Notre Dame was not nearly aggressive enough on some of these returns. Let's take a look.
Navy 1st Return
I wanted to show how Kyle looked after kicking the ball. Now, in my honest opinion, he came at this kickoff very tentatively, as if he was afraid of slipping, and his balance seemed off both during and clearly after the kick. I think he came at the rest of his kicks in a similar tentative fashion and this is why he only had one touchback.
The balance was a factor, as this kick was one, if not the shortest kick of the season. Navy fielded the ball on the 10. It is good, however, that Notre Dame's coverage team is already at the 30, meaning despite the short kick, they may have been able to make the play. I noted that Navy was very disciplined and you can see that they are sitting and waiting for the Notre Dame players to converge.
And here is where the kickoff coverage went south. Devin Butler, circled in red, overcommitted and allowed for a lane to open in the middle of the field. There is absolutely nobody behind him and this was very poor on his part. You can see that the rest of the ND coverage unit, for the most part, held their lanes. Butler's mistake here allowed for the kick return to go for more than it should have. The sad part of this is the ND coverage team, despite the short kick, is still inside the 25, meaning a short return was possible.
Navy was able to block both Eilar Hardy and Max Redfield and get the ball into open field. Notre Dame's safety valves were in position off-screen but still, the kick return is already a success for Navy at this point, as the ball is going to be well past the 30.
And Kyle Brindza and John Turner finally brought Marcus Thomas down at the 44 after a 34 yard return. Navy showed great discipline and much like their play offensively on our defense in this game, capitalized on a mistake by an Irish defender.
This kick return is a prime example of why holding lanes and fighting off blocks is important. Redfield and Hardy did their best to squeeze Thomas but were too slow in doing so. Butler's overcommitment cost the Irish dearly here.
Navy 2nd Return
The ever-popular Turf Monster from this game strikes Navy like a torpedo to the hull of a battleship. Thomas catches this ball at the 2 and promptly slips, losing the ball in the process. In an aspect of the game where tenths of seconds matter, this was a catastrophe for the Midshipmen.
Some griped about the refereeing in this game and here is about as blatant of a block-in-the-back as I have ever seen on James Onuwalu. Thankfully, Max Redfield is waiting for Thomas to make a move and ended up tackling him at the 7, pushing him back inside the 5 (refs gave him forward progress). Redfield played this kick beautifully, not losing position and making a smart play and tackle.
As for the Attack of the Turf Monster, check out the chunks flying through the air when Thomas loses his footing. It's like confetti. Honestly, if this isn't indicative of a problem with ND's field, I don't know what is.
Navy 3rd Return
Another short kick from Kyle here, this ball landing on the 3. Different from the first kick, Navy is much more spread out, giving the ND coverage team open lanes to attempt a short return.
A rare mistake from Navy here. As you can see, Navy has 4 blockers standing on the 16 waiting for guys to block. Here, they need to engage--or Thomas needs to slow down his return to allow for his blockers to get ahead of him. You can see Notre Dame's adjustments too--they have multiple safety valves back around the 30-35 yard lines, and some players running free from blockers.
Great job from the Irish here. Thomas was effectively bottled-up and ended up running right into the butt of one of his lead blockers. Once he did that, the return was effectively over. He churned for a couple more yards but ND brought him down at the 24. This coverage was the success that the first kickoff coverage was not.
Navy 4th Return
Another shorter kick from Kyle, this one also landed at about the 2.
Ben Councell catastrophically overcommits here and opens a huge lane right up the middle. He also injured himself on this play, blowing out his knee and ending his season. Some in the Twitterverse lamented Navy's cut-blocking for injuring our players during this game but here it appears the Turf Monster got the best of Ben, as he overcommitted, lost his footing on the poor field conditions, and went down. For those playing the home game, Notre Dame's field claimed its first casualty of the season in Ben Councell. That is both inexcusable and infuriating, but I digress.
Councell is down for the count on the left side of the screen. Thankfully, Thomas again made the mistake of running into his blockers, and his blockers made the mistake of sitting back too long and failing to engage. Notre Dame is already recovering at this point but the kick return is going to end up past the 25.
And ND tackled Thomas at the 30. Overall, a good recovery but the damage was done when Ben overcommitted. This was almost a mirror image of the first kickoff. Had Thomas not run into his own blocker and had his blocker engaged a ND player upfield, the return could have gone for longer.
Navy 5th Return
And I guess it's good to save the worst for last. Here goes nothing...
This was not a bad kick from Kyle. While it was not touched back, it did land on the goal line almost at the pylon.
Navy wisely made adjustments to their return team and began to engage the ND players much earlier. You can see while ND has guys running free, most of them are bottled up with blockers at about the 25. Thomas has a lane and a poor angle from James Onuwalu (at the 17, coming down) allowed him to squeeze through.
Notre Dame is going to get eaten alive by stronger teams like Stanford if they don't clean this up. Almost every middle coverage man, save for John Turner, was bottled up in the middle. Thomas sprang free. If not for the great angle taken by John Turner, this may have gone back. Thomas kept churning and ended up close to midfield even after Turner grabbed him at about the 35 yard line. I wish George Atkinson III would watch tapes of this and run like Thomas did. Thomas really performed excellently on Saturday. Overall, ND's kick coverage unit performed poorly. Save for some poor blocking decisions by Navy and the Turf Monster, the coverage unit could have been much worse. Hopefully they learn from this moving forward.
In what was a historic day, Notre Dame never punted once. This was the first game in Brian Kelly's tenure at Notre Dame that the Irish never punted. The last time Notre Dame punted 0 times in a game was in 2009, a loss to Navy.
ND Kick Return
Navy had similar issues on the kickoff because of the sloppy field conditions. Austin Grebe, Navy's kickoff man, booted 6 kickoffs for 363 yards, good enough for a 60.5 average with 1 touchback. George Atkinson III took all 5 kickoffs for 113 yards, a long of 33, good enough for a 22.6 average. I've said it before and I will say it again: George, some times, just doesn't run like a madman. If you look at the way Marcus Thomas returned kicks and the way George returned kicks, it was like night and day. In all honesty, some times he just looked like he wanted to avoid contact or was thinking too hard about finding a hole and not running for space. His returns made it to the 24, 24, 33, 27, and 32-yard lines, so it is not like ND ended up with terrible field position out of it. However, I was left thinking ND could have gotten more. Let's take a look at his returns.
ND 1st Return
And we're off. Atkinson fielded this ball just inside the goal line and began his return.
Atkinson had a huge hole but it closed quickly as Alex Welch missed a block. He was in good position but just did not engage until far too late. Atkinson was forced to dodge a tackle and this slowed him down.
Because of the reduction in speed, Navy was able to close quickly. However, I give credit here to George. He kept his feet moving and kept chugging up field, taking this ball to the 34, an extra 5 yards. I have not seen him run like that often this season and it was a refreshing look. That said, he would have most certainly ran this one back, given the blockers he had in front of him, had Alex Welch made his block. Unfortunate but ND still ended up with good field position and would eventually score on this opening drive.
ND 2nd Return
Gerbe's kick here landed at the 10, very short, much like one of Kyle's kicks to the same direction (field conditions anyone?).
A lone Navy coverage man was able to squeak through the blockers and hit George. He was not tackled but forced to slow down and make a move. I normally fault George for failing to run hard but here, he really didn't have much of a choice. There was no hole and he had to make a move. The player was unblocked and the replay shows that Romeo Okwara, #45 in the middle, should have had him. However, in defense of Romeo, he was being bumped around and the Navy player simply bounced right off of him. George ended up getting tackled on the 27 because of the reduction in speed. My suggestions for fixing this would be to make sure the ND players maintain position and not get jostled around while blocking. Romeo maybe should have committed sooner to blocking the guy but failed to do so. Still, the return made it past the 27. Like the first return, it could have gone for longer, but it was still a success as it ended up past the 25.
ND 3rd Return
Another short kick from Gerbe, Atkinson caught this ball at the 16 on a dead sprint.
And another miscommunication between Romeo and George. Romeo, again, failed to converge on a coverage man and George ran right into him, reducing his speed, and negating a long return. This was tough, though, because of the short kick. I don't think Romeo expected Atkinson to be right on top of him so quickly. This was another successful return (past the 25) that could have possibly gone for much longer.
ND 4th Return
Probably one of the only poor decisions made by George all day on kick return, he fielded this ball about 5 yards deep in the end zone and elected to return it after succumbing to the Turf Monster and slipping on his back foot.
Perhaps a sign of trickeration to come? ND sent a guy back to fake a reverse (I think it was Amir Carlisle but the replay is too blurry), much like Purdue did against us. You can see the ND blockers engaging players but multiple ND players are already turned around at this point, giving me heartburn.
Someone pass me the Pepto. Navy has 3 guys running free to tackle George and meanwhile has 3 of their own guys engaged on a single Navy coverage man on the 14. George, to his credit, found a hole here and powered his way to the 24. If there was a positive to this game, it was that George ran hard and he certainly did so on multiple returns.
ND 5th Return
i love shots like this and would like to give a shoutout to the NBC cameraman on this play for zooming out and allowing me to see the ND return unit. You can see that George catches this ball at the 1 and ND's return team is set up at the 30.
And here would probably be the second poor decision by Atkinson in the return game all night. George has the entire bottom of the field wide open but elected to cut this one back up. You can see that he has multiple blockers ahead of him had he decided to go left. Instead, he cut it up.
George ran with fury but when there are unblocked men, he can't do much. Here he ended up getting tackled at the 24.
Overall, ND's return unit performed well, save for some mistakes. However, those mistakes were costly when it came to breaking big returns. This just serves as an example of why players need to hold blocks and make smart decisions, as a single mistake can ruin a play.
ND Punt Return
Navy's success on offense limited the amount of chances ND had for punt returns in this game. Pablo Beltran, Navy's punter, only had 2 punts on the day which went for 79 yards, an average of 39.5 with a long of 40. TJ Jones returned one of these for 5 yards, however a replay would not serve much to help, as ND blocked in the back during the play, rendering the return obsolete.
ND and Navy Field Goal
Kyle Brindza only had 1 chance for a field goal in this game and it turned out to be crucial to the game. His 26 yard make gave the Irish a 3 point cushion in the lead column. Thankfully, the field conditions did not have an impact on this kick. However, I think they may have had a bit of an impact for Navy. I noted in the preview for this game that Navy's kicker, Nick Sloan, was arguably the worst part of their special teams. Sloan missed an extra point in this game, pushing ND's lead to 4 points instead of 3. Had Navy gotten within field goal range at the end of the game, they could have attempted to tie it up. Instead, they needed a score and ND was able to hold off a late charge from the Middies for the win.
No fault of the Turf Monster here. Sloan's hips are pointed right, along with his plant. You can see the ball already going right and it had absolutely no chance because of Sloan's hips and follow-through.
Looking Forward to Pitt
On the kickoff front, Chris Blewitt is Pitt's kickoff man, having taken 40 kickoffs for 2,346 yards, good enough for a 58.7 average, 9 touchbacks, and 1 kick out of bounds. The 30 kick returns that Pitt has allowed have gone for 601 yards, good enough for a 20 yard average. The longest kick return against them all year was a 74-yard return courtesy of Carlos Wiggins from Bob Davie's New Mexico squad.
Pitt has mixed up the kick return chances on the season with multiple guys getting multiple looks. Tyler Boyd has taken the bulk of the returns, 12 in total, for 250 yards, good enough for a 20.8 yard average with a long of 35. This 35 yard return came in Pitt's first game against Florida State. Lafayette Pitts has taken 9 kick returns for 177 yards, good enough for a 19.7 yard average with a long of 33. Kevin Weatherspoon has taken 2 kickoffs for 40 yards, a 20 yard average, with a long of 25. Brendon Felder has taken 1 kick return for 19 yards.
Once again, Notre Dame will face a world-class punter on Saturday in the form of Matt Yoklic. Yoklic has booted 43 punts for 1,857 yards, good enough for an average of 43.2 yards and a long of 57. He has only 5 touchbacks, 10 fair catches, and a whopping 11 of these landed inside the 20. None have been blocked. Despite the power of Yoklic's leg, Notre Dame will have its chances on Saturday for returns. Pitt has allowed an astounding 17 punt returns on the season for 238 yards, an average of 14 yards per return. Duke managed to return one of these punts 82 yards for a touchdown.
Kevin Weatherspoon is Pitt's primary punt returner, taking 7 punts for 81 yards, good enough for an average of 11.6 and a long of 56. This 56 yard return came against Old Dominion, an FCS program. Lafayette Pitts has taken 1 punt return for 2 yards. Weatherspoon's longest return against a FBS opponent was against Virginia Tech for 10 yards.
On the field goal front, Blewitt also handles these. He is 7-9 on the year with only 1 kick blocked. he is 3-4 from 20-29, 1-2 from 30-39, and an amazing 3-3 from 40-49 with a long of 47. His misses have from from 24 and 36. His leg might not be strong but he is very accurate and Notre Dame needs to be aware of this. He has not missed a kick since the UVA game.
What do we take from these statistics? Well, for starters, ND is going to have return chances in both the kickoff and punt games. I had to see it to believe it, but Pitt follows the mind-boggling Michigan philosophy of utilizing the traditional punt formation, and it has cost them dearly all season. Of the 17 punt returns, only 10 have been held to single-digit returns and many of those involved fumbles. Looking through their box scores, Pitt has allowed multiple punt returns of over 20 yards. On the kickoff front, Pitt has also allowed the big play, giving up a 74-yard return to New Mexico. Notre Dame needs to take advantage of this on Saturday with disciplined blocking and smart decision-making. Additionally, Pitt's return team is not fantastic. While Weatherspoon has a 56-yard return, this came against a FCS opponent and he has not gotten a return longer than 10 yards against a FBS opponent. Furthermore, their kick return game is also woeful, with low averages and a long return of only 35 yards on the season.
Let's take a look at some game film. Below, we will see New Mexico's 74-yard kick return, Duke's 82-yard punt return, Boyd's long kick return against FSU, and Weatherspoon's long punt return against Old Dominion. I will also highlight Pitt's punt formation against Georgia Tech, as the most recent game will indicate whether Pitt has made any changes to their punt formation.
New Mexico Long Kick Return (74 yards)
I know Halloween was last week but I wanted to throw these up in case you didn't get a good scare. IT'S BOB DAVIE!!! Ok, now, on to the special teams...
Blewitt had a very short kick on this one with the New Mexico return man catching it at the 8.
And it has only been about 10 yards and I can tell this is going to be a huge return. Pitt did not adjust their lanes to the path of the ball-carrier and there is an ENORMOUS hole on the bottom of the screen. You can see the multiple pitt guys are bottled up at the right hash. For a proper kick coverage, they need to be evenly spread out. Instead, they are flooding into each other's lanes and enabling there to be a hole on the left side. The New Mexico return man sees what we all see and made a beeline for it.
I think the proper language here is that the kick returner was "hauling ass." He was at top speed almost immediately after catching the ball and never slowed down once. He has open field ahead of him after speedily weaving through some traffic. I really hope the ND coaches show George this tape and simply say, "We want you to run on every kick return like this guy." Fantastic job. Most of the Pitt coverage players are already retreating and this is why they are off their blocks.
Chalk up an assisted tackle to the Turf Monster. The New Mexico return man made a cut to the middle of the field and lost his footing. He eventually regained it but the reduction in speed cost him precious tenths of seconds, allowing for Pitt's already-beaten coverage team to recover. There is absolutely zero doubt that this would have been returned for a touchdown had the return man not stumbled.
And the tackle was finally made at the 18 yard line. Overall, this was just an utterly horrific display of kickoff coverage from the Pitt Panthers. They failed to react quickly to the return and failed to maintain and adjust their lanes. I really think Notre Dame can take advantage of mistakes like this with smart blocking, smart return running, and overall smart play. Fingers crossed.
Duke Long Punt Return (82 yards)
As you can see, Pitt runs the traditional punt formation. I will go to my grave saying that if teams can run the spread punt formation, there is no rhyme or reason to run a traditional formation. Too many players get bottled up in the middle of the field and there are not enough guys down to cover the punt itself. As you saw from the stats above, this has cost Pitt DEARLY this season.
And here is clear proof of why the traditional punt formation stinks. In a spread formation, players can maintain lanes similar to that of kickoff coverage. When there is a traditional formation, the gunners alone are responsible for first tackles as well as outside contain. Here, you can see the two Pitt players downfield. They are the two gunners. The bottom gunner is making a beeline for the return man but in doing so, left the bottom of the field wide open. Now, Duke poorly blocked him and Jamison Crowder, Duke's return man, was forced to make a move. Still, you can see that the Pitt gunners are the ONLY TWO PITT PLAYERS WITHIN 30 YARDS. Wow.
Now, credit to the Pitt gunner; he tackled towards the outside, forcing Crowder to take it up the middle. Still, this did not matter in the long run, as Crowder easily beat him and had over 10 yards of open field in front of him. You can see that there are unblocked Pitt players in view. This should have been a good sign for Pitt...but it was not.
Crowder broke two tackles and ran like a madman right up the middle of the field. At this point, he is already at the 36 and has 7 Pitt coverage players behind him, with an 8th in no position to make a play (the guy at the top on the 40).
One smart block by a Duke player and Crowder has only the snapper and punter to beat, which he did so easily by gunning for the sidelines. Touchdown Blue Devils and we have ourselves a 2 point game.
What do we take from this? Well, for starters, Duke really did not block this punt return that great. There were multiple Pitt players running free. The problem was that Crowder was already at top speed and had far too much field to work with. Traditional formations succeed only if the punter can kick it within the coverage and only if the gunners can make it down fast enough. In this case, neither happened. Crowder had enough time to make a move on the gunners and there were zero Pitt players from the interior of the formation within 30 yards of him once he caught the ball. Going into Saturday, the lessons should be the same ones that ND employed against Michigan: block the gunners, bottle up the interior coverage team, and stick with blocks on the return. ND is definitely going to have chances for returns on Saturday. It is up to the punt return unit to make sure that they capitalize on those chances.
Pitt Long Kick Return (35 yards)
Boyd took this return, catching it just inside the pylon on the 1 yard line. I should note (and the ESPN broadcasters did as well) that Pitt has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 6 years. This one came awfully close.
FSU had great pressure but drastically overcommitted and failed to stay in their lanes. It helped FSU that multiple Pitt players failed to stick with their blocks but by the time Boyd got to the 10, the damage was done. He has a wide open lane to the outside of the field and two blockers moving that way to lead for him.
Here is where the kick return failed. Because the Pitt players failed to stick with their blocks, Boyd is surrounded from behind from recovering Seminoles. He also made the catastrophic error of outrunning his blockers. That is the kicker at the 30 and only he is in a position to make the tackle--and he did. Boyd simply ran right into him and had nowhere else to go because he was boxed in by his blockers. Had he hesitated only briefly, he may have gotten this one out to past midfield (I think the FSU players would have recovered in time).
Teaching point? Stay in your lanes. It is really that simple. Pitt benefitted on this return from a simple mistake by FSU of overrunning lanes and allowing Boyd to bump it to the outside. ND needs to be disciplined on kickoff coverage, as similar mistakes against Navy cost them dearly. I do not want ND to be the first team to give up a kick return in 6 years to these guys and smart play will prevent that.
Pitt Long Punt Return (56 yards)
OK, before going into this, keep in mind that this return was against Old Dominion, a FCS team with not as skilled players as Pitt. On that note, the return...
ODU utilized a spread formation but still only got 2 guys downfield to attack the return man. He had far too much time and more than enough space to make moves and he did. He has wide open field in front of him. Now, noting that ODU had a spread formation and only has 2 guys down there, this means that Pitt's return team did an excellent job of blocking.
You can see that ODU has some open players but most of them are surrounded by Pitt blockers. Pitt's return man smartly ran for space and waited for holes to develop as he sprinted downfield.
Here, you can see what I was talking about. The play kept flowing to the right and a massive hole developed. Credit to the Pitt return team, especially the two guys on the bottom who are pushing their men into the sidelines.
Here, Pitt's return man broke it into the middle of the field--probably his worst decision on the return. He has no guys blocking for him that way and he was effectively on an island. You can see the ODU players recovering and surrounding him to make the tackle.
BUT WAIT! Pitt's return man broke some tackles and broke it back to the outside where his blockers were waiting. This most certainly would have been a touchdown at this point had it not been for...
The Turf Monster. Pitt's return man stumbled and fell. Credit Turf Monster with another tackle. Pitt would go on to score a few plays later but this was made possible by smart running from Pitt's return man, poor angles and tackling from ODU, and great blocking by Pitt.
To learn from this, Notre Dame needs to recognize that Pitt's return team is composed of good, smart blockers. They do not have many long returns like this one but returns like this show what can happen if a few things bounce your way. Notre Dame needs good coverage, good angles, and good pursuit to prevent something like this from happening on Saturday.
As always, I welcome comments below. Hopefully you have stuck with me this far. Fin.