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State of the Special Teams: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

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Special teams were not so special against Northwestern. Are they really as bad as we think?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Two missed field goals, another bobbled snap, and a lost game to an opponent everybody expected Notre Dame to beat.  Like it or not, games like the Northwestern game make a ND fan reflect on the state of the program and like my colleague Eric, I felt the need to compose this post in lieu of the traditional X's and O's special teams review. As Eric alluded to in his review post this week, some fans have expectations that they want to be met, regardless of how rational those expectations are.  That encompasses all portions of the program, including special teams.

"What if?"

Games like this one leave us asking "what if?" questions, especially with regards to game decisions.  We all love to play Monday Morning Quarterback, and games like this have us doing it for days.  I opined last week that I was not necessarily a fan of the change to Malik Zaire at holder.  Specifically, I said:

Now, maybe there is some injury to Smith or something that Kelly and the coaching staff want to do or try against Northwestern with Malik, but if the change was made because Smith fumbled this one snap in the game, then I think this is a bit of a rash decision. I defer to the coaching staff and hope Malik gets enough work at holder and that this practice time does not cut in to his offensive snaps in practice.

Not only do I believe that i was correct about this being a rash decision, but Zaire was not spending all of his time at holding or working with the special teams unit.

I also said in my Arizona State preview that while the percentage of fumbles per hold was high, I thought there were reasons to explain at least some of them.  In the ASU game, Smith held three kick attempts prior to the fumble and two afterwards.  He fumbled, total, three snaps out of a total of 57 attempts, with two of them coming in the pouring rain game vs. Stanford.  I think the three snaps were certainly hold-able, but only the ASU fumble seemed to wholly be Smith's fault.

I think that Smith at holder may have led to a more positive outcome in the Northwestern game.  I think the change may have affected Brindza's timing or messed with his mojo.  This is merely a guess, because there is absolutely no way to prove it, just a gut feeling.  Holding is easy only if you build up a rapport with the snapper and the kicker.  It's all about timing; from snap to kick takes approximately 2.3 seconds.  These guys practice with one another every practice.  I never kicked past the high school level, but even there, I wholly trusted my snapper and holder.  We were a team, and it would not surprise me in the least if the change messed with Brindza's head.

Does this mean that I was, or am, satisfied with Smith's efforts?  Absolutely not.  Three fumbles, weather or not, is too many.  However, I think merely making a personnel change looking at the flat number with no context is illogical.  Take Golson's interception against ASU where Corey Robinson fumbled the catch, for example.  How many of you would blame that interception on Golson?  After you answer that question, think about where that will be reflected in the stats.  The answer to that is that it will not.  It goes down as an interception for Golson.  If one were to look at the number alone with no context, you may be left with a negative impression.  The same goes for Smith.  With no context, you're left thinking he's the sole reason he had three fumbled snaps.  That's not entirely accurate, after watching the Stanford game.  Now, this is said with the caveat that I do not see practice and maybe there is something the staff has seen that I have not.  However, going off of Coach Kelly's comments regarding the "three fumbles being too many," I think the change was wrong.  It's one of my "what if?" moments.  What if the change was not made?  Maybe the outcome would have been different.

Part of this is on the coaching staff, as well.  Neither Smith nor Zaire ran a fire call when they bobbled snaps.  I said above that snap-to-kick takes about 2.3 seconds.  If the snap is bobbled, the holder needs to make a fire call.  What is a fire call? Here's an example. Fast-forward to 0:39.

That's a fire call.  Notre Dame has 4 bobbled holds on the year and has never run one.  I do not know if they are not coached or not practiced, but they should be.  Now that Zaire is the holder to stay, they should take advantage of his mobility and ability to throw if things go awry.

State of the Special Teams: Are they struggling?

Special teams is a combination of multiple units--field goal kicking, kickoff kicking, punting, and returns.  If one were to focus entirely on field goal kicking, I can see how one would think our entire special teams unit is struggling.  Our holders have bobbled 4 snaps, with some contributions from the snapper.  Brindza is only 11 for 19 (11 for 17 coming into this game), the worst FG percentage of his career.  He's only 1 for his last 5, and is currently sitting at 101st in the country, the second lowest percentage of any kicker from a Big 5/ND team (only Boston College's kicker is worse).  However, these facts should not be looked at in a vacuum.  As I stated above, I think that the blame for the bobbled holds was not entirely on Smith.  Still, the hold by Zaire in this game and the hold in Arizona State were inexcusable bobbles.  And Kyle has missed a lot of makable kicks this season.  I opined elsewhere that maybe the holder chemistry has something to do with it, maybe it is leg fatigue, maybe he has the yips, who knows.  I have also noted that from snap to kick takes about 2.3 seconds.  This means that the unit has to perform flawlessly.  I disagree with anyone who thinks that holding, snapping, and/or kicking in D1 FBS is easy.  I recognize the types of athletes in the NCAA and hypothesize that it takes flawless execution to succeed, especially in kicking.  This takes practice to get the timing right and, most importantly, it takes chemistry.  This is why Brindza was much better last season, in my opinion--he built up a chemistry with Massa and Daly.  I think he was working on chemistry with Smith and was not wholly terrible.  I do not think he was that bad with Smith, as I think that the Stanford bobbles were also weather and snap related, but Kyle has come off the rails a bit this season.  So yes, I can see, if one were to look at just the field goal unit, the opinion would be that the special teams unit is "struggling."  But what about the rest of the units?

Let's start with the punt team.  Brindza, even factoring in his below average game against Northwestern, is averaging 41.3 yards per punt with a long of 55.  This is good enough for 60th in the country.  He also only has 38 punts on the year (NCAA leader has 73).  The punt coverage unit is even better.  The punt team has allowed 7 returns for 25 yards, an average of 3.57 yards per return.  This is good enough for 15th in the country. This fantastic coverage unit bumps the punt team net to 53rd in the country (they were 43rd before this game, Kyle was 49th individually--his average dropped .7).

The kickoff team is also solid.  Brindza has 42 touchbacks on 67 kicks, good for a 62.6% average, by far the highest of his career and highest of any ND kicker in recent memory.  Of the 22 returns ND has allowed (3 kicks went out of bounds), ND has allowed 444 return yards for an average of 20.18, good for 51st in the country.  The 20.18 average indicates that, with Brindza's 63.1 yard average, the ball carrier is still being tackled inside the 25.  A success in my book.

As for the return teams and defense? As a unit, the kick return team has a cumulative average of 20.43 yards per return, good enough for 67th in the country.  The punt return team is ranked 82nd, having 20 returns for 135 yards, an average of 6.75 yards per return.  This number is so low because the non-fair catches/downed punts count as returns from Bryant.  However, I do not fault Greg entirely, since his returns, while short, prevented some punts from bouncing past for worse field position.  Individually, Amir Carlisle is 55th in the country in combined returns.  Cody Riggs is 50th in punt returns, averaging 7.3 per return.  Defensively, Jarron Jones is 1st in the country with blocked kicks (5).

So back to the question: Is our special teams struggling?  I try to call it like I see it, and I don't sugar coat it, but no, they are not, at least not entirely.  The punt coverage unit is fantastic, the field goal block team is one of the best in the country, and our punt and kick return teams are average, despite losing both primary return men to injuries this season and exceeding the numbers from last season.  Kyle Brindza is one good game (like vs. ASU) from being a top 25 punter because his low total punts mean his numbers will fluctuate wildly with a good or bad performance.  So for those saying our special teams units are struggling, you're not entirely correct; the field goal team is struggling, not the whole special teams unit.  I am a perfectionist and expect greatness, but I think most of the units are about average, several are exceptional, and one is struggling.  I say this so we can give credit where credit is due. There is good, bad, and ugly.

Condensed Northwestern Review

I do not want to leave you with no review of NW at all, so here is a condensed version.

Kicking

While I addressed it briefly above, Kyle had arguably the worst game of his career.  On kickoffs, he had 7 for 419 yards and only 2 touchbacks.  His kicks were an average of 59.9 yards per kick, incredibly low.  From the punt spot, he had 4 punts for 140 yards, an average of 35 yards per kick, more than 6 yards below his average.  And for the ugliest stat of them all, he missed both field goal attempts he tried, hooking both to the left, and missed an extra point, with contributions from a bobbled hold.  He dropped in every statistical category from his performance.  Just two weeks ago, we saw him have one of the best games of his career in Arizona.  This week was the polar opposite.  Hopefully he can rebound against Louisville. Better yet, hopefully the offense and defense perform so he is only needed on kickoffs and extra points.  In addition, hopefully he gets some time in with Zaire on field goal attempts.

Returns

On punts, Greg Bryant had 1 return for 0 yards.  The bright spot of that is he did not fumble.  On kickoffs, Amir Carlisle had 6 returns for 122 yards and a long of 30.  Both were average performances from the return guys.

Thank you for sticking with me speaking my mind. I will be back with the usual X's and O's preview of Louisville on Friday.  Fingers crossed my review of that game is nothing like this one.