Irish special teams facing early struggles
Greg Hadley | Thursday, September 24, 2015
Through three games, Notre Dame’s special teams unit has put itself in the spotlight enough to last all of 2015.
It started with an unsteady hold and near-fumble on a punt against Texas, then continued with a fake field goal and a missed chip shot at Virginia, and most recently manifested itself with an errant extra point and all of seven return yards on seven punts against Georgia Tech.
The No. 6 Irish have a wide range of experience on special teams, with freshmen at kicker and punt returner and seniors at kick returner, long snapper and kickoff coverage.
So far, those players have come together put up middling numbers.
The Irish are 120th in the FBS in kickoff returns and 84th in punt returns. When defending, they rank 82nd in punt coverage and 30th on kickoffs. Freshman kicker Justin Yoon is four for six on field goals, 63rd in the country, and behind 80 other kickers who have yet to miss an extra point.
But as the first month of a season comes to a close, head coach Brian Kelly is still hopeful for what lies ahead.
“No, I’m not concerned,” Kelly said when asked about Yoon. “He’s still working through some fundamentals. Justin is such a conscientious kid. He’ll clean up a couple of the mistakes he made and make the adjustments necessary. Not concerned in the least bit.”
Kelly’s confidence extends to his kickoff return team, too.
“We were able to make the adjustment that I wanted on kickoff return [against Georgia Tech],” he said. “So yeah, I’ll be anxious to see where we go this week with it.”
That self-assurance is present in the players as well. Senior receiver Amir Carlisle is averaging just 15.25 yards on his kickoff returns, but the way he sees it, the Irish special teams are headed in the right direction.
“A lot of effort, a lot of passion,” Carlisle said when asked to describe the kickoff return team. “There’s always room for improvement. … We got to make some big plays and all be on the same page, and that’s been an emphasis going into this week. Just being on the same page.”
Carlisle has only returned the ball four times this season, three of which went for fewer than 20 yards. But at some point, he believes he will break out.
“Yeah definitely,” Carlisle said when asked if he thought he could return a kick for a touchdown. “That’s my goal: to take one back. I have confidence that I will be able to do that this year. I have confidence in the guys blocking for me and in [special teams coordinator Scott] Booker’s scheme.”
As a returner, Carlisle has also helped to mentor freshman punt returner C.J. Sanders. Thus far, Sanders has only collected 54 yards on nine returns, but Carlisle said he believes Sanders is also primed for a breakthrough.
“It only takes one,” Carlisle said. “It only takes one to take it back. Sometimes it’s not going to be there. … But all it takes is one hole to break through and change the game and the momentum. As a punt returner, we really believe in C.J. Sanders. We believe he can get the job done.
“C.J.’s a great athlete. I tell him just to be instinctual and to trust your God-given gifts and let that manifest itself on the field.”
Carlisle also expressed confidence in Yoon and sophomore Tyler Newsome, who handles punts and kickoffs for the Irish. Even though the two have experienced some rough patches early on in the season — in addition to his missed extra point, Yoon ricocheted another off the goalpost against Georgia Tech, and Newsome ranks 90th in the country in touchback percentage — Carlisle said both have the full faith of the team.
“It’s not too much, ‘You gotta do this, you gotta do this,’” Carlisle said. “But’s it just ‘Good job. You’re doing a great job.’ We’re all really supportive of the specialists.”
Carlisle is not the only senior leader on special teams. Graduate student Matthias Farley doesn’t see the field often on the defensive side, where he is a cornerback, but he plays frequently on kickoff coverage and return. In that role, he has become a team captain and a mentor to younger players who receive limited playing time with his positive attitude, according to Kelly.
“I don’t try to make a role for myself,” Farley said. “I just try to control what I can control, which is my attitude and my effort and those things I can change, whether I’m [playing] a hundred snaps a game or none.”
Follow Greg Hadley on Twitter: @GregHadley9