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Notre Dame Special Teams: Massachusetts Review

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A record-setting day for the Irish featured arguably the best overall special teams performance of Brian Kelly's tenure.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

OFD Films II

62 points, a punt return for a touchdown, a stuffed fake punt, a punting yardage record, and more, anchored Notre Dame's fantastic special teams performance this weekend against Massachusetts.  But for a muffed punt return catch and a bad hold that led to a missed extra point, Notre Dame's special teams would have graded as an overall A+ in my book.  As for each individual unit, let's get to the review.

ND Kickoff

Tyler Newsome had a lot of work this weekend because of the amount of touchdowns.  He had 10 kickoffs for 624 yards, an average of 62.4 yards per kick.  UMass had 8 returns for 151 yards, the bulk of those (6) being taken by true freshman RB Andy Isabella for 116 yards.  His longest return of the day went for 28 yards and was largely the product of a bad kick.  Let's take a look:

ND UMass Kickoff

As you can tell from this GIF, Tyler's worst kick of the day gave UMass decent field position that went for naught, as the half ran out at the conclusion of the play.  ND's coverage team played this one perfectly.  While the kick went short and the coverage team was therefore late getting to the return team, they funneled the return man to the sidelines, giving him no room to run.  You can clearly see multiple ND kickoff members angling for the sidelines to prevent a long return.  Hard to pick on Tyler for one bad kick but that was really the only problem with the kickoff unit on Saturday in my opinion.

ND Punt

Tyler Newsome had a historic day on Saturday;

Newsome's 52.4 yard average on his 5 punts (262 total yards) set a school record.  His longest punt went for 59 yards and was a beauty:

ND UMass Punt Long

Newsome outkicked his coverage because this punt went so far.  Devin Butler made an absolutely fantastic open-field tackle on this, taking away any hope UMass may have had for a long return.

Newsome did not just kick long punts, but was also strategic, and had one of the best punts of the year, in my opinion:

ND UMass Punt Downed 1

I am not normally a fan of the "kick it high, let the coverage team run under it," strategy (I prefer the coffin corner myself), but Tyler put a fantastic spin on this and it simply died after bouncing at the 1.  This single punt was arguably the biggest play of the game, in my opinion.  UMass would proceed to go 3-and-out, punt to CJ Sanders, who would then run it back for a TD.  Notre Dame would proceed to score 41 unanswered points after this punt.

All was not perfect, however.  Amazingly, despite Tyler's long average (52.4), his net was only 39 yards.  He touched back 3 of his 5 punts, and the UMass return team returned his 59 yarder (GIF above) for 7 yards.  He can still improve, but after 4 games, averaging what he's averaging and punting like he's punting, he does not have that far to go to be a Ray Guy finalist in my opinion.

ND Field Goal

For the first time in Justin Yoon's short career, he had 0 field goal attempts in this game, and went 8-9 on extra points.  His lone miss was the result of a bad hold:

ND UMass Extra Point Miss

The hold reminded me of this little fellow, but in the end, this miss had little impact on the game.  It is important to highlight, 4 games in, that arguably every single one of Yoon's misses can be pointed to issues with the holder.  While the replays suggest Justin has adjusted his hips/plant at times, the holds on the misses have been problematic.  Still, he is currently 67% (4/6) on field goals and has made all but 2 extra points.  I do not think there is much to be concerned about with him.

ND Punt Return

Ahem, cough, cough...

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, if they do in fact still run [the traditional punt 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.

I should buy a lottery ticket.  CJ Sanders arguably shared the special teams MVP trophy with Tyler Newsome on Saturday, having his best day yet in an Irish uniform.  He had 3 returns for 63 yards.  His longest return was from 50 yards out, and it was a beauty.

ND UMass Punt Return 1

As for analysis, here's what I came up with:

ND UMass Punt Return 2

The UMass punt team, scared of a possible block, was in max-protect mode.  You'll notice that they had absolutely 0 gunners, and absolutely nobody released for coverage.  Even considering their field placement, this was very risky.  If I were their coach, I would have at least had 2 gunners on this play, and instructed the punter to kick towards the sidelines to try and pin the return man there.  Instead, UMass did this.  ND, smartly in my opinion, didn't even try to block this.  They only rushed 6, sitting 4 to hit the first to release from the line.  UMass punted right to CJ, who had 15 yards of open space to pick up speed.  While the blocks were not perfect, several UMass players took horrendous angles and CJ's speed was too much for them.  After making it through the initial wave, KeiVarae Russell and Equanimeous St. Brown threw two absolutely fantastic blocks and after one more move from CJ, Greer Martini was there to throw the final block.  CJ returned this 50 yards, untouched, showing the skill and speed that we saw from the preseason.  This was ND's first punt return for a touchdown since 2009.

Now, I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking, "Hey PB, but UMass had no gunners, and CJ had a billion yards to work.  Returning against spread formations isn't the same."  I would agree, in part.  CJ has the ability to get to top speed quickly, and all he needs is some space.  Here, there were fantastic blocks thrown all around, and ND CAN DO THIS AGAIN.  They just need to block.  This is proof that when you block on special teams, good things can happen.

ND Kick Return

The weak link of the special teams units thus far, the kick return unit had an average day on Saturday.  Amir Carlisle took 3 returns for 75 yards, an average of 25 yards per return.  His longest return went for 29 yards.

ND UMass Kick Return

Welp, the blocking woes continue.  On this play, ND's return team did not block well, double-teaming a coverage player for no reason, and leaving Amir Carlisle to only have a lane to run to an area where there were more UMass players than ND players.  Likewise, and I hate picking on single players, but Dough Randolph did not touch a single player on this return.

At this point, I'm not convinced it's a skill problem. ND had Dexter Williams return a kick as well in this game, which he returned for 20 yards.  Like I have said previously, I don't think the return man matters at this point.   I think this is a scheme problem.  If the punt return team can do it, then there's no reason to excuse the kick return team's problems.  I pointed out Randolph above, but he seems to be in a position of the field where he is not able to even block anyone.  I think Booker and Co. need to look at gametape from programs that are having more success and model our return unit after those.

Additional Bro Notes:

  • More good news!  ND happened to stop a fake punt this weekend.  On this play, Greer Martini and Jarrett Grace took fantastic angles to cut this one off and stopped it perfectly.

ND UMass Fake Punt Defense

  • I have said it before, and I will say it again; I do not understand why teams still run this stupid, stupid punt formation.  It is idiotic.  ND's players were obviously more skilled than the UMass players, but as you saw from the kick returns, skill can be overcome with smart play.  The smartest thing UMass can do is join the 21st century and switch to the spread formation.