Notre Dame shined in their season opener against Texas. ND outplayed the Longhorns in nearly every facet of the game, leaving this game with no doubt as to who would win. Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome made their season debuts at the specialist positions, and CJ Sanders made his season debut as the punt returner. Let's take a look at how everyone did on Saturday.
Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome split the kicking responsibilities on Saturday, with Yoon handling the field goals and Newsome taking care of kickoffs. Newsome had 7 kickoffs for 426 yards, an average of 60.9 yards per kick. Newsome appeared to be going for hangtime on his kicks, trying to drop them around the goal line. The result was very successful, as Texas only managed an average of 20.8 yards per return and an average starting field position of the 21-22 yard line, minus the first kickoff that went out of bounds. Three of ND's kickoff coverage teams managed to tackle the Texas return man inside the 20, with two of them counting (one called back by an offsides call on Drue Tranquill). Of note, the Drue Tranquill kick landed about the 2 yard line, with a tackle at the 15. The re-kick, from the 30, landed 3 yards deep in the endzone and was returned only to the 24, highlighting the fact that Newsome can boot the ball if he wants.
ND had absolutely fantastic coverage on many of the kicks, the best, in my opinion, being the final kickoff of the game.
In this kick, you can see that the Texas return man makes a huge mistake in deciding to return this ball after catching it 3 yards deep in the endzone. #44 Doug Randolph makes it straight through, practically unblocked, and #12 Devin Butler manages to maintain outside contain. #24 Nick Coleman was blocked, but shed his blocker entirely, leaving him with an unabated path to the return man. It is inexplicable to me why the upbacks missed blocking any of these three players, but all three combined to make an absolutely awesome coverage tackle.
Staying on the Newsome Train, Tyler had only 4 punts on the night for 165 yards, an average of 41.2 yards per punt. Newsome had a long of 50, and 3 of his 4 punts landed inside the 20 (8, 18, and 14 yard lines respectively). The fourth punt, his first of the game, landed at the 3 and bounced into the endzone for a touchback. However, it was Newsome's second punt of the night that was my personal favorite.
I have no notations in this GIF because it really was a team effort. Practically every rusher beat the Texas defender off the line, with little to no blocking, and the return man made an inexplicable decision to return this ball. Of note, I would like to highlight Farley, who circled around the return man to prevent a potential touchback. Perfect coverage all around, compounded on a poor decision to not fair-catch this kick.
It is worth noting that Newsome's 41.2 yard average is rather pedestrian, however you need to consider the context; all four punts ended up at the 20 or less, three of them being inside the 20. This is a stat that would not be highlighted on NCAA rankings, and it darn well should be.
ND Field Goal
Justin Yoon made his first kicks, and first miss, of the season on Saturday. Yoon went a perfect 5-5 from extra points, and 1-2 from the field, with a make of 38 and a miss of 45. Yoon's miss of 45 appeared to be a simple hook.
Not a perfect angle here, and I'm no rocket surgeon, but, to me, it looks like Yoon just came around the ball too far, with his plant foot aimed too far left, causing his hips to swing around the ball, pushing it to the outside. Kizer also did not spin the ball here, and this may have impacted the miss as well. Even despite the miss, I was happy to see that, even while missing a bulk of his senior season, Yoon has fantastic leg strength from the field. I am excited to see how he does the rest of this season.
ND Kick Return
I started with the good and am now moving to the bad. As I noted in the Preview, Texas was dead last in kick return coverage defense last season, and so I expected good things from ND. That said, ND's defense was dominant, and Texas' kicker Nick Rose only gave the Irish two chances at returns on two overall kickoffs in the game, neither of which resulted in a long return. The first, the opening kickoff of the game, landed in the back of the endzone for a touchback. The second, an attempted return by Amir Carlisle, resulted in an almost-downing in the endzone, with only a 10 yard return, and very, very, very poor blocking and coverage.
On this return, the problems start before Carlisle even gets out of the endzone, with #12 Devin Butler's man running right past him. #59 Jarrett Grace and #18 Chase Hounshell see Carlisle make a late decision, but both fail to react in time, allowing the Texas outside coverage man to just run unabated to the return man. This was one of those coverage plays were so many players made mistakes that it is hard to place the blame on any single one person. Carlisle should have downed this, considering where he was when he caught the ball and where Texas was when he even left the endzone. At the same time, the return team needs to block appropriately. These are similar problems that we saw last season, and I hope they get squared away as the season goes on.
ND Punt Return
And now for the ugly. ND's defense shined on Saturday, giving the Irish many opportunities at punt returns. Texas punter Michael Dickson ended up with 10 punts on the night for 423 yards, an average of 42.3 yard per punt. He had a long of 56, and 2 inside the 20. These are fantastic numbers for a guy in his first collegiate game. Of his 10 punts, 2 were downed, 2 went out of bounds, 3 were fair-caught, and the remaining 3 were attempts at returns, all by freshman CJ Sanders. His 3 returns went for -1 yards. While CJ had a 5 yard return, his second resulted in a 5 yard loss from a fumble, and his third was a 3 yard loss. While it is my belief that Sanders should have fair caught EVERY SINGLE PUNT, all three returns failed for big yardage because of failed blocking. Let's look at the first:
First, to note, I highlighted #41 Farley on both of these punts, but I absolutely positively do not blame him in any way for these two failed returns, as I recognize he was looking for a fake. On this punt, #16 Hunter Jr. just lets his guy run right past him, without giving him a shot to delay the coverage. Sanders absolutely positively has to see this and not bother to return this. By the time he catches it, his only hope is to make a super-human move to miss an obvious tackle from inside 2 yards, where it would be a lot safer to fair-catch this kick. On the other hand. if Hunter blocks his guy, the next closest Texas coverage players are roughly 5 yards away, giving Sanders MORE than enough room. And onto #2...
#24 Coleman and #29 Baratti, in similar fashion to Hunter, on Failed Return #1, let their guys off the line without any contact. Sanders is left with absolutely no room to move and no room for a return. It also would have been safer for him to fair-catch this, but a single block on this has a similar result to Failed Return #1; the closest guy is approximately 5 yards away.
While this is only the first game, I feel like this needs to be a crossroads moment for Notre Dame's punt return unit. Either they are going to make contact off the line and give the return guy a chance, and/or properly stalk block, or they need to pull a John Goodman Special and just fair-catch everything. There is no point to risk potential turnovers like this, because good teams will most certainly take advantage of these failures. If ND is concerned about a fake, then all the line coverage players need to do is give the coverage player they are matched up against a shot in the chest off the line, to break up his timing and slow his acceleration. Giving a dynamic player like CJ Sanders 5+ yards to work with should certainly be enough for a decent return. There is a middle ground to spread returns, and other teams have found success (see, e.g., Tyler Lockett from KSU, De'Mornay Pierson-El from Nebraska, Lucky Whitehead from FAU last season). ND needs to find this middle ground and stick with it, otherwise I would not be shocked if there are turnovers in the punt return unit's future.
Additional Bro Notes:
- Brian Kelly showed true gamesmanship in calling back-to-back timeouts before halftime to ice Texas kicker Nick Rose. It worked, as Rose made both timeout-called kicks from 52, but missed on his third attempt when it mattered. I loved it. Like the tactic or not, it certainly worked here. Rose's only other attempt in the game, from 41, was good. It was Texas' only points of the night.