In the moment: Justin Yoon is always ready to answer the call for Notre Dame
Elizabeth Greason | Friday, November 24, 2017
It’s the number of points junior kicker Justin Yoon needs to displace Kyle Brindza at the top of the list of Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorers. Yoon currently sits at 260 points scored in an Irish jersey, behind Brindza’s 288.
“That would be awesome [to be Notre Dame’s top scorer],” Yoon said. “I haven’t really thought about it much just because it’s a team sport. It’s great that I have the opportunity, but I think that what’s important is being able to finish strong with this team. This is a great group of guys, and I hope that we can continue strong and finish strong with a good end for the season. I haven’t really looked at it much.”
With at least two games in the 2017-2018 season remaining and a full senior season of kicking ahead of him, Yoon’s surpassing of Brindza appears to be nearly inevitable, assuming he remains healthy. In fact, for Yoon, being so close to the top has become the norm. He was highly touted as the No. 1 kicker in the class of 2015 by Rivals, despite the fact he had only picked up football in eighth grade, having focused on soccer and hockey previously. However, Yoon said the No. 1 ranking coming out of high school wasn’t something that was in his mind at all when it came to deciding what school he would attend.
“Ranking is just ranking,” Yoon said. “I thought of it as something that told me that I should just uphold the leverage that I have, so it’s an advantage, it’s an opportunity.
“ … During the whole recruiting process, I first wanted to see if the school fit me academically, lifestyle, socially, the people around and then, you know, football basics. So, out of those, Notre Dame, Stanford, Northwestern and Harvard fit me really well. From there, I decided on Notre Dame because I thought they had the best option. … What an amazing school it was — there’s an atmosphere around Notre Dame, it’s unique. The other aspect is, going to Notre Dame for my first time, it is something you can’t really describe. It’s something you have to come over and see for yourself. … Mendoza School of Business is one of the finest, and the other options didn’t really have a business school either, so it was the way to go.”
The pressure has been on for Yoon since the first night he first stepped on the field at Notre Dame Stadium — he was called on to put points on the board for the Irish eight minutes and 31 seconds into Notre Dame’s rout of Texas on Sept. 5, 2015, the opening game of Yoon’s freshman season. As a true freshman starting kicker, Yoon kicked five extra points that night, as well as a 38-yard field goal. He heard the entire student body collectively cheer his name six times that night, a tradition that had followed him from high school.
“I kind of understood that [the chant might follow me to Notre Dame], but I wasn’t sure,” Yoon said. “When it happened, it was a big surprise because the entire stadium is doing it. It’s different than 20 people doing it. It’s definitely a big surprise, but I kind of suspected it would happen. I’m grateful for it, the fact that everyone still trusts and believes in me, it gives me confidence.”
That confidence is something that comes into play each time the son of a former Olympic figure skater is called onto the field. The junior was called on during Notre Dame’s Oct. 29, 2016, win over Miami (FL) — one of its few bright spots during last year’s 4-8 season. The Irish had struggled for 34 yards in 10 plays with the game tied a 27. As the game clock ticked to 30 seconds, it was Yoon who was called on to kick what would be the game-winning field goal.
“It was rough because last season was a tough time,” Yoon said of the Miami game-winner. “Just the fact that every game counts is important, so being able to be in that moment where everyone can count on me and … I could hold true to myself was unique. There is nothing else to really explain it. You have to be in that moment. Not many people can be in that moment though. I was one of the lucky ones to get that experience.”
For Yoon, who was born in Ohio, attended elementary school in Korea, moved to Nashville in third grade and then went on to boarding school in Massachusetts, living in the moment is an important facet of life. As he learned this spring, everything can change in an instant, as he sat out the entire spring season with an injury.
However, after working with Irish director of football performance Matt Balis, Yoon was able to catch up to his teammates be ready to go for the start of the season.
“I knew it was going to be tough recovering, just because I was out for the entire spring. I didn’t get as a much of a load that I should have, but going into the season, I knew I needed to work just as hard as anyone, if not doubly, and I did that over the summer and I made sure I could catch up,” Yoon said. “I know I’m still lacking in some aspects, but there’s always room to improve. So, going into the season, I wasn’t really nervous, per se, because I felt confident because Coach Balis was really, really good at what he was doing. He got me back up to my physicality aspects, and I made sure I could be dependable, made sure that coaches could count on me when I needed to be put on the spot. I’ve just got to continue to improve and look forward to finishing off this season strong and coming back next year even stronger.”
While Yoon was thrust into the spotlight, becoming a campus sensation almost overnight, as Notre Dame’s offensive productivity has increased this season, he has seen his role diminish. With the Irish winning seven of their first eight games by a margin of 20 points or more this season, Yoon and the rest of the specialists have not been called into “the moment,” into high-pressure game situations, as frequently — although Yoon did score 13 of Notre Dame’s 19 points in its 20-19 loss to Georgia. However, the Under Armour All-American has embraced his role on the team this season — knowing that he needs to be ready to go at any moment.
“I’m always ready. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, I have to be ready, because you never know, anything could happen,” Yoon said. “So, my expectation of that is just be ready, no matter what. If coach needs you, then hey, you just gotta go and do it. That’s the way I see it.
“The fact that I’m not going out there is a good thing because that means we’re not scoring touchdowns [if I am], so I’m not even worried about that. We’re doing our job. As long as we win, we continue to score points, that’s all that matters for this team. The fact that I’m not getting called upon, that’s part of the game. You’ve just got to be ready whenever the situation is there.”
Yoon has also gradually yielded some of his kickoff duty to freshman kicker Jonathan Doerer this season. But within the tight-knit specialist group, the junior has tried to be a mentor for him, as Yoon was in the same position as Doerer just two years ago.
“As a freshman, it’s not easy to just go in and be told, ‘Oh hey, you’re going up now. You’ve got to do that job,’” he said. “It’s a big difference. [Doerer is] still only 18 years old. The spotlight’s on him. That’s really hard for an individual, but the hardest thing for him was the transition from high school to college. Not anyone can just do that, and he’s done a really good job and being able to help him through — not just me, but everyone — has impacted him a lot. He’s grown, definitely. Telling him that you can’t let anyone else affect you. You’ve got to grow your own game.”
Despite getting less time on the field this year, Yoon has remained one of the most familiar faces on campus — a campus celebrity of sorts. The Notre Dame robotic football team even went so far as to name its kicker “Justin Unit.”
“If people end up knowing me like that, then that’s awesome. I’d like to expand upon that,” Yoon said. “ … They’re all fans, and I’m grateful for all of them.”
Yoon looks forward to Notre Dame’s big rivalry games, as Notre Dame’s wins over USC at home this season and in 2015 have constituted the highlights of his career with the Irish, as he was able to be in the moment once again and appreciate the experience.
“Just these past three years, playing against USC and winning freshman year and this year, those were my two highlights,” he said. “I mean, just being able to play against such a big rival team and win by those margins, it’s unbelievable. Everyone gets excited. You see in the stands all the people going insane. It can’t get better than that.”