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Edmonds: Notre Dame must confront special teams failures

| Sunday, October 14, 2018

Something has to be done. At first, it was poor performance, but it’s reached a point of mismanagement and burden of the responsibility lies on one man — Brian Polian.

In his second season as Notre Dame special teams coordinator, Polian has fielded a disaster, plagued by errors and poor coaching decisions.

The obvious start is Jonathan Doerer. I feel for Doerer, I really do. I have no doubt that the sophomore kicker is trying his best but unfortunately, it just hasn’t been enough. After two-straight out of bounds kicks in as many games to open the season, Doerer has resolved this issue by simply aiming for Library Quad, placing 19 of his next 33 kickoffs in the end zone and just handing the opponent 25 easy yards.

Anna Mason | The Observer
Irish junior safety Alohi Gilman makes a tackle during Notre Dame’s 19-14 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

So naturally, Polian’s solution is to sub in senior kicker Justin Yoon, as if he’s lacking snaps. Against Pitt, Yoon stepped in for Doerer after his kick to open the second half resulted in a 99-yard run returned for a touchdown by Pitt. Nothing is inherently wrong with Yoon kicking off for the Irish. But, it does make you question the judgement that went into such a decision considering Yoon has was limping on the sidelines after his kickoffs and has a documented history of tendonitis. With five games remaining in the regular season, the Irish apparently have no way to preserve their all-time leading scorer from playing unnecessarily.

Oh yeah, and not sure if anyone else cares but Ian Book — yes, junior Ian Book, Notre Dame’s starting quarterback — is still serving as the placeholder. Can’t wait for his hand to get obliterated by Yoon’s injured foot. Do the Irish (7-0) really not have anyone else capable of catching a snap?

Returning to that second touchdown by Pitt. Senior safety Nicco Fertitta had the best shot of taking down Panthers junior receiver Maurice Ffrench around the midfield stripe. His botched tackle was just another error in the saga that was Nicco Fertitta on Saturday. Early in the game, Fertitta had jumped across the line on a Pitt punt, keeping its drive alive that led to its first touchdown.

It’d be easy — but harsh — to throw Fertitta under the bus for all the points Pittsburgh scored on Saturday. But patterns aren’t formed out of nowhere. At some point, Polian has allowed this lack of discipline to prevail, simply neglecting his players until they’re the ones left to face the consequences.

For anyone who dares to suggest that special teams aren’t important, just ask Pitt, whose two missed field goals made the difference between a disappointing 19-14 loss on Saturday and adding a key win to the long resume of major upsets.

Heck, just ask 2015 Notre Dame. Now I know Polian wasn’t around when the Irish traveled to Palo Alto, California, with a one-loss record on the line to close the season, but surely even he remembers the Cardinal’s game-winning field goal that ended any fading chance the Irish had of making the playoff.

Special teams matter and unless serious changes are made in personnel and strategy, Polian may have to learn this lesson the hard way over these next five games.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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