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Special Teams Preview: Notre Dame vs. Navy

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After the Bye, Notre Dame faces a tough test against the Midshipmen from the Naval Academy.

Dale Zanine-US PRESSWIRE

OFD Films II

Enough with playoff rankings and bye weeks, we have some football to preview.  As an overview, Navy, on its face, would appear to be a physically overmatched team.  In certain areas, that is obvious, as you will see in the previews below.  However, where Navy falters in certain areas, they excel in others.  Pablo Beltran, Navy's Punter, might be one of the best ND will face all season.  As you may know from the OFD writers season previews, I am a blind homer and think we are the greatest football team, ever.  Still, at least thinking somewhat impartially, Ohio State is the toughest team Navy has played all season, and I have no doubt that ND is better than Ohio State.  Navy's other opponents have included: San Jose State, VMI, Air Force, Western Kentucky, Rutgers, Texas State, and Temple.  This is not exactly a murderers' row of teams.  I think ND has the physical tools to overpower Navy.  What ND needs to be careful of (aside from cut blocks), is a lack of discipline.  Navy is not bigger than ND, not faster than ND, and not more powerful.  But they do not make mistakes.

Navy Kickoff

Navy's primary kickoff man is kicker Austin Grebe, who has taken all but one kickoffs on the season.  Grebe has 43 kickoffs on the season for 2,724 yards, an average of 63.3 yards per kick.  17 of his kickoffs have gone for touchbacks for a 39.5% touchback percentage.  This on the lower end of a percentage and so Notre Dame's return men (i.e. Amir Carlisle) are going to have their chances to get returns on Saturday night.

Because of the lower touchback percentage, Navy has allowed 27 returns for 523 yards, an average of 19.4 yards per return.  The longest return against Navy this season was for 35 yards by Dontre Wilson from Ohio State.  As I noted above, while Navy might lack in certain areas, they make up for it in others.  For allowing so many returns, a 19.4 average is stellar.  Limiting a team like Ohio State to only a 35 yard long is also very impressive.  Here is the return:

NavyLongKickoff

As you can see from this kickoff, Ohio State had a lane set up to the left.  However, Navy's outside contain continued to work his way up field and with help, Wilson ran right back into the middle into traffic.  This was great discipline for a team that was beaten when the returner caught the kick and recovered to keep the return inside the 40.

Navy Punt

Navy's punter is Pablo Beltran and he should be on the Ray Guy Award Watch List.  He is absolutely fantastic.  He has 25 punts on the season for 1,112 yards, an average of 44.5 yards per punt.  He has a long of 62, only 4 touchbacks, 6 fair catches, and an amazing 10 punts inside the 20.  To compare this to our own Kyle Brindza, Beltran's average is 3 yards longer (41.7), his long is 7 yards longer (55), he has fewer touchbacks (5), and fewer fair catches (12).

Because Beltran has an absolute cannon for a leg, it would logically make sense that he outkicks his coverage.  He does, to a point.  Navy has allowed 10 punt returns on the season for 53 yards, an average of 5.3 yards per return.  This, in my opinion, is poor, as I think a 5 yard punt return is a decent return, especially in this day and age of the spread punt formation.  The long return, an 11 yarder, like the kick return, came at the hands of Dontre Wilson from Ohio State.

NavyLongPunt

Navy isn't the worst team in the country (Michigan) so they run the spread punt.  They do this rugby-style thing occasionally as well.  The return here was nothing fancy; Beltran outkicked his coverage and Wilson broke a tackle.  The positive for Navy on this is the coverage team kept lanes and did not overrun the play.  This was also their first game of the season, so they are definitely improving.  Riggs is going to have his hands full trying to get by these guys because they are disciplined and even if beat initially, keep their cool and do not allow big returns.

Navy Field Goal

If Notre Dame is going to take any advantage in any area of the game, this is it.  Navy's field goal unit is the worst of its special teams.  Austin Grebe has wrestled the field goal duties away from Nick Sloan.  Grebe was Navy's primary kicker in their last game against San Jose State.  He made both of his attempts, a long of 33 yards and a chip-shot 20 yarder.  Those are the only two kicks he has attempted (and made) this season.  It is unknown how well he will perform under pressure or outside of this distance (a 33 yard FG means the ball was at the 16 yard line).  Nick Sloan, before losing the job, was 3-8 on the season with a long of 35.  He was 1-2 from 20-29, 2-4 from 30-39, and 0-2 from over 40.

This is very similar to the UNC special teams preview.  Grebe is good from inside the 33 but we have absolutely no idea how good he is from outside of it because he has so few opportunities.  The obvious positive would be for ND to keep him off the field entirely or, in the alternative, keep Navy outside of the red zone.  If Sloan is on the field at all, I will be skipping with glee.

Navy Kick Return

Navy has used a slew of kick returners this season.  Slotback Demond Brown has taken the bulk of the returns, 11 for 192 yards, an average of 17.5 yards per return.  His longest return on the season has been for 29 yards.  Slotback Ryan Williams has been more successful but has fielded fewer kicks.  He has taken 6 returns for 140 yards, an average of 23.3 yards per kick, with a long of 30.  Calvan Cass Jr., Toneo Gulley, and Ryan Harris have all taken returns as well--4, 2, and 1 respectively--for 77, 33, and 0 yards.  If Navy returns any kicks on Saturday night, they will likely come at the hands of Brown or Williams.  Brown's long return came against VMI and so there is no video of it.  Williams' long return came against Rutgers.  Here it is:

NavyLongKickReturn

There's really no need to annotate this GIF.  Navy blocks heads-up and Williams kept his feet moving.  As I said above, Navy is very disciplined and will play tough, especially on special teams.  As long as ND maintain lanes and plays smart, they will be able to limit Navy's kick return unit.

Navy Punt Return

Like the field goal unit, Navy's punt return unit is somewhat of a liability.  Navy has utilized two primary punt returns this season.  The most successful has been slotback DeBrandon Sanders.  Sanders has 5 returns for 24 yards, an average of 4.8 yards per return.  However, his longest return on the season was for 19 yards just last week against San Jose State.  If you take away this return, Sanders' average plummets to 1.25 yards per return.  The other return man, safety Parrish Gaines, has a similar 3 returns for 4 yards, an average of 1.3 yards per return.  Gaines' longest return has been 4 yards, meaning his other 3 have been for close to nothing or negative yards.  Here is Gaines' longest return:

NavyLongPuntReturn

As you can see from this return, SJSU's kicker outkicked his coverage and Navy had enough blockers back.  They also benefited from a terrible angle on a possible tackle.  That said, returns like this are rare for Navy.  Their averages are so low that if they return anything longer than 5 yards, there was some sort of coverage failure on the part of ND.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments.