Notre Dame faces off this weekend in an interesting matchup against UMass. For the second week in a row, Notre Dame will be facing a team who has few special teams stats in certain categories, so there is a giant question mark on how UMass will perform in certain areas. Let's get to it.
UMass's primary kicker is Blake Lucas, who handles both the kickoff and field goal units. Lucas only has 1 field goal attempt on the season, which was good from 34 yards in UMass's first game vs. Temple, a 25-23 loss. Lucas also missed an extra point, making him 4-5 on the season. He also only has 8 kickoffs through 2 games for 482 yards, an average of 60.2 yards per kick. 4 of his 8 kickoffs were touchbacks. Of the 4 that were returned, UMass opponents returned them for 62 yards, an average of 15.5 yards per return. That 15.5 return yard average ranks UMass as 11th best in the country in defending kickoff returns.
In this game, I have no doubt that Lucas could likely make kicks inside the 30, but he is a wild card, and, quite frankly in my opinion, not very good. As a sophomore, Lucas went 3-10 from field goal range, 2-4 as a junior, and 1-1 so far as a senior. This is a shockingly low amount of field goal attempts for a third-year kicker, and a rather low average of 40%. Given the low amount of attempts, it would not shock me in the least if he went out and made a couple, but at the same time, it wouldn't shock me if he missed every single one. Yes, he has gone the past 2 years, combined, with a 60% FG percentage (not fantastic but not terrible), but it has been off a total of 5 kicks.
The same cannot be said for kickoffs. UMass has not had many kickoff returns against them this season, but the teams that have returned them had absolutely no success whatsoever. Lucas is no slouch on kickoffs; while he may not possess the accuracy Given ND's display of the lack of an ability to properly block on kick return through three games this season, I have 0 faith that they will succeed here, even considering UMass is a, for lack of a better term, lesser opponent. I would absolutely love to be proven wrong, and if ND is going to actually try to block on returns, this would be a great game to start doing so; anything to get the starters off the field quickly will be the best result in this game.
The one specialist that has gotten a lot of work this season is punter Logan Laurent, an enormous (6'4'', 210 lb) redshirt sophomore. He has 14 punts on the season for 587 yards, an average of 41.9 yards per punt. Only 2 of his 14 have touched back, 2 have been fair caught, 2 have been inside the 20, and 3 of his 14 have gone for over 50 yards. UMass's punt return defense is adequate, allowing an average of 4.83 yards per return.
Laurent is not that great of a punter, averaging only 41.9 yards per punt, and the punt return defense has had two games against teams that rank 76th and 115th in punt returns. Notre Dame is smack dab in the middle of those two, ranked 84th. The difference though, in my opinion, is that the punt return team for ND is starting to show signs of life, and I really think that they have the chance to return one this weekend. I do. First, CJ Sanders is a beast in the making. Second, I give you this:
First, there's a caveat to this photo: It's from UMass's game against Penn State from last year, as I was unable to find game tape of either of their two games this season. Second, if they do in fact still run this formation, then in the words of Pope Francis upon visiting One Foot Down, "Holy freakin' whipped guac, Batman." What we have here, dear viewers, is your classic traditional punt formation. If ND can't block this, then there is no hope for the punt return unit. CJ Sanders should be averaging 10+ yards a return if he gets the chance to field one.
Kick and Punt Return
Like last week with Georgia Tech, I have got to lump these in together. UMass has used a bunch of kick returners, however I will focus on the primary two. The first, James Oliphant, a true freshman DB, has 4 returns for 97 yards, an average of 24.2 yards per return. The second, Khary Bailey-Smith, a senior DB, has 4 returns for 74 yards, an average of 18.5 yards per return. Oliphant has the longest return for 28 yards, Bailey-Smith has a 21 yard long return.
In what has to be the most confusing stat I have seen, UMass, through 2 games, has 0 punt returns. That's right, big goose egg on the punt return. Against Colorado, Oliphant fair-caught one punt, and the other three were either downed or went out of bounds. Against Temple, UMass trotted out their starting SS, senior Trey Dudley-Giles, who fair-caught 4 of Temple's 8 punts. While Oliphant is a true freshman with nothing to really show in terms of career return stats to this point, Dudley-Giles is an established return man. Going back to his freshman year, Dudley-Giles had 14 punt returns for 112 yards, an 8 yard average, with a long of 29 (2 kick returns for 48 yards, long of 37); as a sophomore, he had 12 punt returns for 147 yards, an average of 12.2 yards per return and a long of 30 (30 kick returns for 669 yards, an average of 22.3 yards, long of 41); as a junior, he had 4 punt returns for 32 yards, the bulk of that—31 yards—coming on a single return (8 kick returns for 269 yards, an average of 33.6 yards per return, and along of 74).
Looking at past stats from the UMass return teams, they are rather proficient, considering that they are a newer FBS program. They have returned kicks for touchdowns before. It just has not happened yet this season. ND needs to be conscious of this; UMass may not be the best team on the schedule, but they do possess return men who are dangerous.