Notre Dame faces off against its second triple option opponent of the season, the Naval Academy, on Saturday. Navy enters the game 4-0 on the year, with wins over Colgate, East Carolina, UConn, and Air Force. They enter the game with a very good overall special teams unit that is, not surprisingly, very raw, as their specialists have not seem much work on the season (think Georgia Tech). Navy, despite what many may complain about when it comes to cut blocks, etc., is an unbelievably disciplined team. They are taught discipline and play with it, working their butts off to get and maintain blocks, even when it comes to special teams. Personally, it would be incredible if teams with 5-star athletes could constantly play with the same discipline; I would love to see what they would be able to do. As for the game Saturday, here's what the Irish will face.
Navy's primary kicker is senior Austin Grebe. Grebe, on the season is 4-4 on field goals, with makes from 25, 27, 37, and 38. Similar to Georgia Tech, Navy does not often have to resort to field goals, often going for it on 4th down and/or electing to punt. Admittedly, Navy has not had to do much punting this season, which you will see below. Grebe has taken all of Navy's kickoffs this season, booting 29 for 1,782 yards, an average of 61.4 yards per kick. He has 10 touchbacks and booted 1 out of bounds. Against the middies, opponents have returned 18 punts for 352 yards, an average of 19.6 yards per return, with a long return of 34 yards.
Grebe does not touch back many kicks, meaning to me that ND's kick returners, whoever they may be, will likely have opportunities to return kicks this game...unless Navy fails to score often. ND's kick return unit showed signs of life in limited opportunities last weekend against Clemson. Here is to hoping the streak continues.
Navy's punter this season is junior Alex Barta, starting for the first time in his career. Barta has an incredible leg, having punted only 9 times for 394 yards, an average of 43.8 yards per punt. In his first ever punt as a collegiate player this season, Barta boomed a 72 yarder for a touchback vs. Colgate in Navy's first game (try as I might, I could not find a video of it). 2 of his 9 punts have been fair caught, 2 touched back, and 1 landed inside the 20. Given that, Navy has only allowed 1 punt return on the season, for 15 yards, vs. Air Force last weekend.
9 punts in 4 games is an incredibly small sample size. This means to me that Navy is very good at getting first downs and when failing to do so, good at forcing non-returns on punts. That said, if given a chance, a punt returner vs. Navy can do incredible damage. 1 of 9 is not a good ratio, but if ND can do what they did against GT and force punts, they have a shot to do incredible damage. This is a team that a player like CJ Sanders could really do some damage against.
As for Navy's punt formation, here's how it looks (or at least how it looked last season, as I was not able to find any gametape of their games this season):
Very similar to Clemson, Navy runs a spread formation with a focus on punter protection. Given Barta's leg strength, it is no wonder why they have allowed so few returns but also, seeing this formation, it is no surprise that the lone return they have allowed went for 15 yards. If CJ gets some blocking, it could be off to the races on Saturday.
Kick and Punt Return
Navy has used a convoy of return men on the season, with Dishan Romine, a junior slotback, taking the most (3) for 75 yards, an average of 25 yards per return. His longest return went for 37 yards. Demond Brown, a senior slotback, has 2 returns on the season for 30 yards, an average of 15 yards per return, with a long of 17. Toneo Gulley, another junior slotback, also has 2 returns for 47 yards, an average of 23.5 yards per return, with a long of 33. These are three very fast return men and given their long averages, put Navy with good field position. On punt return, Navy has utilized two returners this season. The one who has seen the most work is senior slotback DeBrandon Sanders, who has 4 returns for 33 yards, an average of 14 yards per return, with a long of 4. Junior slotback Calvin Cass Jr. has 2 returns on the season for 15 yards, an average of 7.5 yards per return, with a long of 12.
While Navy has not exactly played top-tier teams to date, they have made the most of their opportunities in the return game this season. Every return man has a very high average and they have been very successful. Notre Dame needs to be SMART when kicking to these guys. As for me, I think it would be smart to aim for the sidelines and be smart on kickoffs.