For the last few seasons, Kyle Brindza has been the face of Notre Dame special teams. Minus a rough stretch in 2014 where it looked like Lucy holding for Charlie Brown - ok, maybe not that bad, but the mistakes were untimely - Brindza was a consistent asset in the kicking game, whether kicking off, nailing field goals, or booming punts.
Even with the holding issues last season, Brindza graduated having hit over 70% of his field goal attempts in his career, and allowed only nine punts returned in 2014 with an average distance of 41.5 yards. But even with the loss of a great leg, can Notre Dame's special teams improve or become more consistent in 2015?
The return game
The Irish can feel pretty good about their ability to match last year's success or improve in a couple of areas - punt and kick returns. After years of complaints about punt returns and puzzling fair catches Notre Dame ranked 27th in punt return efficiency in 2014.
Cody Riggs and Greg Bryant combined for a few scary moments (which seem to happen every season - returning punts is terrifying, really) and many electric returns, and while Riggs is gone there should be a wealth of athletic skill position players to take his spot between CJ Prosise, Amir Carlisle, and CJ Sanders. The kick return unit enjoyed similar success, ranking 25th in return efficiency - again, this seems to be an area where Notre Dame's talent advantages should give them an advantage over most teams.
Coverage units... huh?
As Bill C. framed up in Notre Dame's 2015 preview, the struggles for Brian Kelly's coverage units is pretty puzzling when you factor in Brindza's high rates of fair catches and touchbacks. The Irish ranked 114th in kickoff return average allowed, which is almost impossibly bad when you have so much talent on the side with gold helmets.
The Irish finished 56th in punt efficiency and 81st in kickoff efficiency, and the flashing red light sounding "WARNING" here is that it's not a new problem - in 2013 Notre Dame was 93rd and 105th respectively. This is both a threat and opportunity for Notre Dame's - if coverage improves and the kickoffs and punting can be close to what Brindza provided, the Irish will be in good shape; if it stays this bad and there's fewer fair catches and touchbacks, it could be a critical weakness.
If the punt return solution was to complain enough about it until it improved, it's definitely time to start
bi whining about the coverage units.
Kickoffs and Field Goals
College kickers are a meme for a reason, so typically replacing a player like Kyle Brindza with a true freshman would be a nightmare. But Justin Yoon is a young beast, and has shown some promising early signs that the mental aspect of kicking on a big stage may not be an issue, nailing three field goals (including a game record 47-yarder) in the Under Armour All-American Bowl.
The #1 ranked kicker in his class can also kick left-footed too:
The good news is that typically top kicking recruits' success translates to the next level - last year's top-rated true freshman was Tennessee's Aaron Medley, who went on to hit 20 of 26 attempts. On kickoffs Yoon's strong leg should allow him to come close to or match Brindza's success, and he may be the freshman most likely to have a big impact in 2015.
I am no Punter Bro, but will do my best here - this is Tyler Newsome's job to lose. While Newsome could not beat out Brindza for punting duties in 2014, the sophomore will now have four years of eligibility to show off his leg strength.
Newsome has good size for a punter at over 6'2 and 205 pounds, and was very highly regarded coming out of high school by punting experts. How quickly he'll put it all together in South Bend is yet to be seen (maybe he already has!), but Brian Kelly told the reporting crew he was "crushing" the ball in spring practice, so hopefully this is Newsome after games at the Backer (once 21 of course):
Season Outlook: Ask again later
In Newsome and Yoon the Irish have two strong young legs that may be able to mitigate Brindza's loss, but will the coverage unit improve and support them better? Can the return game, and punt returns in particular, continue to be a top-25 unit or was 2014 an outlier? Are the issues with placeholders fixed? Will Justin Yoon kick an extra point left footed just for fun?
There are too many questions without clear answers to know if the special teams unit as a whole will take a step back or forward. The special teams unit probably has the biggest potential range in terms of outcomes - the talent is there to be a top-20 unit or better, but that's been the case in past seasons that have had terrible results. But as the Irish learned in more than one game last year, special teams and the kicking game can be the difference between a win and loss, and if Notre Dame wants to be in the playoff conversation they'll need more consistency.