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Advanced Stats Review: ND Special Teams

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There's not a lot of advanced stats for special teams, but the ones that are out there think the Irish are a top-10 group.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Some of these stats are not super advanced, or advanced at all, because special teams plays are both rare and statistically fairly plain compared to the number of things we can measure somewhat easily on a run play. As far as advanced stats are concerned, there's very little currently measured - where did you kick or punt from, and what happened?

Punting and Kicking

Punter

Ht, Wt

Year

Punts

Avg

TB

FC

I20

FC/I20
Ratio

Tyler Newsome

6'2, 205

SO

49

44.0

7

7

18

51.0%

DeShone Kizer

6'4, 230

SO

2

40.5

0

0

2

100.0%

In his first season taking over punting duties, Tyler Newsome showed off a tantalizing skillset for a punter - both the ability to punt for distance and with precision. Notre Dame's net punting average of 38.8 yards was good for 35th nationally, and I would be surprised if that number doesn't increase each of the next few years. The fun hidden trivia nugget here is that DeShone Kizer actually had the best net punting average for an Irish player this year, so add that to his resume.

Punt Returner

Ht, Wt

Year

Returns

Avg.

TD

Fair Catch

Fumbles (Lost)

C.J. Sanders

5'8, 185

FR

25

7.3

1

18

3 (0)

Will Fuller

6'0, 184

JR

1

10.0

0

1

0 (0)

Equanimeous St. Brown

6'4, 205

FR

1

18.0

0

0

0 (0)

Notre Dame's 7.96 yards average per punt return was fairly mediocre (69th nationally), but CJ Sanders has provided a welcome spark to a unit that was very good last year but has had very quiet stretches during the Brian Kelly era. Sanders the full range of performances you'd expect from a talented freshman - an electrifying touchdown return, some bobbles and scary moments, and some questionable decisions to fair catch (or not) and let some punts bounce.

Place-Kicker

Ht, Wt

Year

PAT

FG

Pct

Justin Yoon

5'9, 185

FR

46-48

15-17

88.2%

Remember when people were worried about Justin Yoon? Through his first four games he was 4 for 6 on field goals and had missed two extra points. Then from October on, he was automatic - 11 for 11 on field goals, and 28 straight extra points. Any concerns about adjusting to the big stage should have been answered by a two crucial field goals. The first was in the infamous monsoon in Death Valley, badly needed points to answer Clemson's opening touchdown. The other was the 52-yarder bomb before halftime against Navy - after an early 14-point lead had evaporated, Yoon gave the Irish the lead going into the locker room, and Notre Dame would build on it from there.

Kick Coverage and Returns

Kicker

Ht, Wt

Year

Kickoffs

Avg

TB

TB%

OOB

Fair
Catches

Onside
Att

Onside
Success

Tyler Newsome

6'2, 205

SO

79

61.5

19

24.1%

0

5

0

0

Justin Yoon

5'9, 185

FR

0

0.0

0

0.0%

0

0

1

0

Newsome likely has more room to improve with his kickoffs than punts - Notre Dame's touchback percentage was just 101st nationally, although some of that may have been a strategic decision to force returns off high, deep kicks. The overall kickoff yardage given up was very average - 68th nationally - but did feature a handful of kicks out of bounds you know Newsome would like to have back. Notre Dame allowed an average of 21.73 yards per kick return, 75th in the country. My amateur diagnosis is that this is primarily an area of inconsistency - the Irish allowed 3 returns of over 40 yards. Limit one or two of these returns and keep two more kicks in bounds, and you're looking at a top 30 unit - I wouldn't consider this an area of concern.

Kick Returner

Ht, Wt

Year

Returns

Avg.

TD

Fair Catch

Fumbles (Lost)

C.J. Sanders

5'8, 185

FR

23

25.2

1

0

1 (1)

Amir Carlisle

5'10, 195

SR

8

19.5

0

0

0 (0)

Dexter Williams

5'11, 200

FR

1

20.0

0

0

0 (0)

The Irish kick return unit averaged 22.5 yards per kick return, good for 38th nationally, and a number that jumped in the second half of the season as CJ Sanders took over primary responsibilities. Sanders' 25.2 yards per return average was 23rd best in the NCAA for returners with at least 20 kickoff returns.

Overall

FEI breaks out teams' efficiency by offense, defense, and special teams, and going into the Fiesta Bowl the Irish special team's unit ranks #9 in positive value generated. And looking at each of the categories above, plus some that aren't as directly measured (like the blocked punt against USC), that fits what fans have watched all year. It has to feel gratifying Brian Kelly to have this unit become such a positive asset after years of questions about special teams' ability (and last season's high-profile kicking/holding issues).

Starting field position isn't solely a measure of special teams, since it's dependent on the offense or defense's ability to either gain yardage or limit opponents from making progress. But the combination of Notre Dame's offensive ability and special teams led to an average starting field position for opponents at their own 26 yard line, which was 7th nationally. On the opposite side of the ball, inconsistent returns and less than stellar defense gave the Irish an average starting field position of their own 29, 81st in the country.

The best news is that most of the major contributors to 2015's success should be around South Bend for a long time - three more years of Newsome, Yoon, and Sanders should keep Notre Dame's special teams among the nation's best.

Bonus stats:

A few more details to cover that weren't included in the advanced stats breakdown of the Notre Dame offense and defense from the regular season.

Situational Stats

ND Offense

ND Defense

Avg.

Rk

Avg.

Rk

Q1 S&P+

124.1

14

106.2

41

Q2 S&P+

118.5

25

112.0

32

Q3 S&P+

155.4

1

114.5

28

Q4 S&P+

136.1

1

97.5

74

1st Down S&P+

125.4

8

102.0

63

2nd Down S&P+

138.9

2

112.0

32

3rd Down S&P+

137.6

5

116.1

22

The Notre Dame offense in second halves is just fire and 100 emojis all day. The 4th quarter defense is whatever the opposite ones would be (dodo emojis? Skulls? Please poll a teenager and let me know). While some of that can be attributed to garbage time - Georgia Tech and Pitt piled up yards and points in games that were still too far out of reach - you'd hope to see a positive trend like the one seen with the offense that's hopefully indicative of successful halftime adjustments. I think it also makes me question if depth was secretly an issue for the Irish defense - Matthias Farley rotated in at safety, Trumbetti and Tillery/Cage on the defensive line, but other than that? A ton of guys never really came off the field, and may have been less effective late - would be interesting to look at the film to test that hypothesis.

It's also interesting to see the defense fared its worst on first down but improved on 2nd and 3rd. Brian Van Gorder's unit was overall effective defending passing downs (perhaps aided slightly by facing several teams that really can't throw well), with the rare breakdowns being particularly memorable.

Offensive Footprint

Team

Rk

Nat'l Average

Std. Downs Run Rate

57.2%

79

60.4%

Pass Downs Run Rate

37.0%

39

34.0%

Adj. Pace

-4.9

110

+0.0

% of Solo Tackles

72.5%

84

74.7%

On standard downs, the Irish actually ran the ball slightly less often than average (57% run rate, 79th nationally), which may be a little surprising given how effective the rushing attack was in 2015. Ammunition for the "run the dang ball" crowd? Not really, since Notre Dame was still 8th nationally in offensive first down production.

The high percentage of rushes on passing downs (up to 39th) reflects a few different things. The first is patience with the run game - even when forced into a typical "passing down" like 2nd and 10 with an incompletion or stuffed run on first down, the play-calling triumvirate was confident in the running game and it paid off.

On 2nd and 8 or longer Notre Dame ran 59 times which resulted in 9.1 yards per carry and a 46% success rate. On 3rd and 5 or more the Irish ran the ball just 12 times (this includes scrambles - just one of those carries was from a running back) but averaged 12.6 yards per carry and were successful 50% of the time.

Notre Dame played at a pretty deliberate pace, which makes sense for a number of reasons. Brian Kelly fairly quickly figured out that he had a better offense than defense, even with essentially a first-time starter (and then an even less experienced first-time starter) at quarterback. That inexperience behind center also likely limited hurry-up offense as an option - if practice time is needed to ensure installation and successful execution of the full playbook, adding hurry-up in adds additional pressure and complexity in a place that it may not be needed. While it was thrown around early in Kelly's Notre Dame tenure that eventually he wanted to pick up the pace with a no-huddle offense, it doesn't feel like that will ever be the case. But it does seem like a lever the coaching staff could pull for a series or two per game next year with more seasoned quarterbacks and a strong returning line.