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Special teams unit shines in win over USC

| Sunday, October 13, 2019

During Brian Kelly’s tenure as Notre Dame head coach, there have been many instances in which the special teams has cost the team in big moments of the season. This season seems to be a different story, however, as the special teams unit has shown they can be an asset to the team rather than a liability. 

Statistically, the special teams unit is much better than last year’s. During the 2018 season, the team allowed an average of 23.1 yards per return on kickoffs and 8.3 on punt returns. To this point in the 2019 season, the special teams unit has allowed only 17.2 yards on kickoff returns and 4.0 yards on punts. Head coach Brian Kelly attributes much of this success to special teams coordinator Brian Polian.

“Brian has done an outstanding job, quite frankly. I think his approach has had a lot to do with it,” Kelly said after Saturday’s win. “They enjoy playing for him. They want to play for him.”

Polian coached at Notre Dame under Charlie Weis from 2005-2009, when he coached defense, special teams and linebackers. Polian returned to the program in 2017, and his impact is starting to show. Kelly said Polian is very energetic on the sideline, and his players can build off of his energy.

“Those guys want to run down on a kickoff team and they want to make tackles because they have an immense amount of pride for that unit, and he’s built that and instilled it,” Kelly said. “A lot of credit goes to him.”

The most notable player on the special teams unit against USC was junior kicker Jonathan Doerer. Doerer, made three field goals of 45, 52 and 43 yards during the game, shattering his previous best of 36 yards. Even more significant, the 52-yarder from Doerer was the first field goal of 50+ yards since 2015, and it’s tied for third-longest in school history.

Erin Fennessy | The Observer
Junior kicker Jonathan Doerer punts the ball downfield during Notre Dame’s 30-27 win over USC on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Kelly used golf as an analogy for Doerer’s ability when he first came to Notre Dame.

“He could drive the golf ball 350 yards, but he’d be in the trees half the time,” Kelly said.

Kelly said Doerer has spent countless hours perfecting his form and it is starting to show in his on-field performance.

“He can go into any situation, and he trusts what he is doing,” Kelly said. “It’s like anything else, when you go on that first tee and you trust your swing, you feel like you can hit it no matter what the situation is.”

Doerer’s mindset has been positive throughout the whole process, Kelly emphasized. 

“His mindset is, ‘I’ve got to do better. I’m a better kicker than this. I’m going to find a way to make sure that I am repeating this, and I’m going to be the kind of kicker I think I should be,’ and all the credit goes to him,” Kelly said.

Doerer’s teammates gave him a lot of credit for his performance on the field against USC. Senior captain and quarterback Ian Book was proud of Doerer’s development as a kicker and impressed by his composure to bail the team out when they could not finish drives.

“He went out there and just knew that he needed to put up points for us,” Book said. “When we weren’t able to score a touchdown we relied on him to go out there and do that. He did a great job.”

Book said he knows Doerer’s field goals were important to clinching the team’s victory over USC.

“I talked to him after the game and I said to him, ‘I’m really proud of you man, good job, and you helped us win this game,’” Book said.

Junior tight end Cole Kmet talked about the steady progression that Doerer has made to become the kicker that he is now.

“You can see his confidence growing throughout the year, and each practice he gets more comfortable with stuff,” Kmet said. “He did great today. He was awesome.”

Senior running back Tony Jones Jr. echoed compliments of Doerer and acknowledged the kicker’s intense work ethic. 

“John is good kicker, and he knows how to kick the ball,” Jones said. “He has the right approach, and he does it all the time. It takes a long time, but when he does it, he is going to hit everything.”

Doerer received the game ball for his clutch field goals in the USC game. The Irish will need him to build off of this game and perform at similar — if not higher — levels in the future.

In addition to Doerer’s success, freshman Jay Bramblett is starting to develop into a solid, reliable punter for the Irish. Bramblett has 25 kicks for an average of 41 yards per kick on the season, and he showed Saturday that a night game against a solid USC team was not going to negatively impact his mentality.

The 2019 special teams unit appears to be the best Kelly has had while at Notre Dame, and their continued success will be vital for the remaining part of the season.

In two weeks when the Irish travel to the Big House, the special teams will need to be at their best. The Irish will need to get points in any fashion they can against Michigan’s solid defense, and little plays on special teams might end up being the difference in the game.

Although often under-appreciated, this special teams unit is shining for the Irish, and it just might be the difference-maker needed going forward.

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

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About Nate Moller

Nate is a junior majoring in chemical engineering. He is originally from a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota and is currently living in Siegfried Hall. Some of his passions include running, cross country skiing, and getting too worked up about Notre Dame and Minnesota sports teams.

Contact Nate