You thought the position previews were over? Bold of you to presume since we haven’t even gotten to the real heroes: the specialists*.
*NOTE: By “specialists,” I’m only referring to players who either snap or kick the ball. But for the sake of covering all my bases, running back Chris Tyree and safety Brandon Joseph are Notre Dame’s first-team kickoff and punt returners, respectively.
For this final edition of One Foot Down’s preseason position previews, I’m getting back to my theatrical roots and comparing Notre Dame’s specialists to William Shakespeare’s plays. So let’s finish strong.
No. 99 Blake Grupe & No. 91 Joshua Bryan — “Much Ado About Nothing”
Before fall camp, this probably would have been “The Comedy of Errors.” Anyone who saw these two go a combined 1-4 on field goals in this spring’s Blue-Gold Game had rightful cause for concern about how errant Notre Dame’s 2022 kicking game would be. But now, there’s reason to be optimistic.
Special teams coach Brian Mason attributed much of the kicking issues from the spring to the turnover at both kicker and holder (since Notre Dame’s previous holder, punter Jay Bramblett, transferred to LSU). But now, the Irish have found their holder (we’ll get to him later). So you see? There’s no cause for concern. It was all much ado about nothing.
In all seriousness, Mason’s words could certainly be positive spin. But it’s worth remembering how frank head coach Marcus Freeman has been this offseason about the Irish kicking game, so it feels like the coaching staff wouldn’t express meritless optimism.
The narrative on Grupe — a career 74.4% field goal kicker in four years at Arkansas State — was that the 5-foot-7, 156-pounder didn’t have reliable range beyond about 40 yards. For what it’s worth, he went 3-4 during an open practice last week, including one miss and one make from 53 yards. He doesn’t have the same consistency from range as his predecessor, Jonathan Doerer, but he has enough that the staff won’t have to think as hard about going for fourth-down attempts in no man’s land.
As for Bryan, the redshirt freshman appeared in one game against Georgia Tech last season when he converted one extra point. His 0-2 showing in the Blue-Gold Game certainly didn’t win over hearts and minds, and with another kicker committed to the Irish in the 2023 class, the starting job is by no means Bryan’s once Grupe leaves.
But Bryan was a six-star kicker per Chris Sailer Kicking and No. 6 nationally at his position per the 247Sports Composite. The potential is there. It’s just a matter of fulfilling it on the field.
No. 39 Jon Sot & No. 14 Bryce McFerson — “Two Noble Kinsmen”
I could’ve gone with “Romeo & Juliet” and said something like, “two punters, both alike in dignity.” But the comp here is “Two Noble Kinsmen” because each of these two has a distinct, important role to play this season.
Sot is a Harvard graduate transfer who owns the Crimson record for career punting yards average, and he was a two-time All-Ivy League First-Team selection. He’s also the aforementioned holder who has apparently solidified Notre Dame’s kicking game. He’ll be Notre Dame’s starting punter for the year, while the young buck behind him has another job.
McFerson, the No. 1 punter nationally per 247Sports, was a one-time Wake Forest commit who Notre Dame flipped once Bramblett elected to transfer. While McFerson won’t be the lead punter for the Irish, the true freshman will be tasked with kickoff duties this year. He’s apparently well equipped for the job, since Mason said of McFerson, “God kissed his leg.” Enough said, I suppose.
No. 65 Michael “Milk” Vinson & No. 44 Alex Peitsch — “All’s Well That Ends Well”
Notre Dame’s long snapping position is “All’s Well That Ends Well,” because it would probably work out for the Irish regardless of who the first-string is.
Like Bryan, Peitsch was a six-star specialist coming out of high school and expected to start as a true freshman in 2020, but Vinson — then just a preferred walk-on — beat him out.
Vinson has now earned a scholarship and could theoretically play two more seasons thanks to the coronavirus waiver. The best thing about him is that you never hear his name brought up — unless it’s to discuss his nickname, “Milk.” Expect him to be as sure handed as ever as a graduate student.
One more shoutout…
While we’re talking about walk-ons being awarded scholarships, allow me to shoutout sophomore fullback/tight end Davis Sherwood on just being awarded one. He didn’t get brought up in my scholarship tight end position preview — although I did mention him in another of my posts. But he was a special teams staple last season (appearing in 12 games as a true freshman), so it feels appropriate enough to bring him up here for a shoutout