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Irish seek to grow steadier in all phases of special teams

| Friday, September 14, 2018

Amid a tumultuous first two weeks of Notre Dame’s football season, with uncertainty prevalent and a number of questions still unanswered, perhaps no unit has encompassed this more than the Irish special teams.

The ups and downs began Week 1 when, despite claiming an important victory against a Michigan team that was expected by many to make a statement this season, Notre Dame especially struggled on kickoffs.

After sophomore kicker Jonathan Doerer had already sent one out-of-bounds on a kickoff in the first quarter, Doerer sent one to Michigan’s Ambry Thomas, who received the ball at the 1-yard line and took it 99 yards to the house, cutting Notre Dame’s lead to 11. The Wolverines would go on to score again in the fourth quarter, giving Michigan a chance, thanks in large part to the kickoff-return touchdown.

Michelle Mehelas | The Observer
Irish senior kicker Justin Yoon attempts a field goal during Notre Dame’s 24-16 win over Ball State on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

I don’t want to use Justin Yoon,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the win. “We needed to get [Doerer] right. Obviously he got in his own way, and he’s a talented player. You know, we needed to go rescue him and get him out of the game. He wasn’t throwing strikes. But he’s going back in, and he’s going to kick off and he’s going to get it right. He’s a talented player, and he’s committed to doing it, so he’ll be back out there.”

But Kelly also pointed out the positive of the special teams performance against Michigan. Senior kicker Justin Yoon did his part, as he nailed a 48-yard field goal to extend Notre Dame’s lead in the third quarter. Irish junior wide receiver Chase Claypool also played a big role, which was highlighted by a clutch tackle after a punt from graduate student punter Tyler Newsome that forced Michigan to start from within its own 10-yard line.

“I think what we can do better, you know, obviously, from our standpoint, as we continue to grow the attention to detail on special teams,” Kelly said postgame. “We have guys that are anxious and need to just continue to just focus on our process and relax and just have an attention to detail. There’s certainly a lot of really good players on that group, but the attention to detail is not where it needs to be. So we’ve got to be better there.”

Against Ball State, the Irish had much of the same. Doerer sent another kickoff out of bounds, and Yoon uncharacteristically missed a 43-yard field goal in the second quarter, but later bounced back, making a 46-yarder in the third quarter, which placed him in the fourth spot on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list, tied with former Notre Dame running back and current Irish running back coach Autry Denson.

Justin Yoon said the scoring record has crossed his mind as a result of the media attention he has gotten, but ultimately, he remains focused on his own task week by week.

Well, I mean obviously, a lot of people have been giving me all of that attention and talking about the whole record and what not,” Yoon said. “And it does come to my mind, but I think the biggest thing for me is regrouping myself and focusing on this next game, because when you think about those kind of things, it leads you to other thoughts and other things that you shouldn’t be doing, in a sense. So I think my biggest thing for this upcoming weekend is just making sure I focus. Just focus on my task at hand and making sure that the coaches can depend on me — that’s the biggest thing.”

Freshman running back C’Bo Flemister, who got the opportunity to return three kicks against Ball State, was another bright spot on special teams against the Cardinals.

“[C’Bo Flemister] didn’t have a resume really, quite honestly. We were just trying to look for guys that we felt like had shown some things in camp in the first week or so that had pretty good vision, could hit some things,” Kelly said. “Again, he’s still learning. He missed a cut that he saw on film this week. I still think we’re evolving at that position, as well.”

Ultimately, although Notre Dame’s special teams has struggled, coach Kelly and his staff feel they have an understanding of the issue and a confidence in the outline of the unit’s goals. With veteran leaders like Yoon and Newsome, along with bright young talents like C’Bo Flemister, the Irish will look to develop some consistency in performance.

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