Position Group Breakdown: Special Teams
Observer Sports Staff | Tuesday, April 28, 2020
As the semester comes to close, so do The Observer‘s position breakdowns for the upcoming 2020 football season, though it remains to be seen whether the Irish will be able to take the field in any capacity this fall. Regardless, after going through every position group on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, our attention now turns to special teams.
Fortunately for the Irish, special teams coordinator Brian Polian has led a clear resurgence in the third phase of the game at Notre Dame. During Notre Dame’s dismal 2016 season, the Irish were statistically among the nation’s worst in kick and punt coverage, but steady improvement followed Polian’s arrival.
In 2019, Notre Dame ranked 15th and 18th in punt and kickoff coverage, respectively. Opponents mustered just 17.89 yards per kick and 15.05 yards per punt against the Irish, by far the best marks during Brian Kelly’s tenure. Polian’s units also made plenty of big momentum plays in 2019, creating multiple turnovers, blocking two punts and recovering a critical onside-kick to seal a 30-27 victory over USC.
Key 2019 Departures:
The Steelers’ second-round draft choice and Camping World Bowl MVP will largely be remembered for his 19 touchdown receptions (including his four-touchdown game vs. Navy), but Notre Dame’s No. 1 receiver in 2019 remained a key contributor on special teams during his senior season. Along with his five special teams tackles, Claypool stripped and recovered a punt to set up Notre Dame’s first touchdown against Georgia and recovered another stripped punt in the first quarter of the Camping World Bowl versus Iowa State.
Gilman, a safety and team captain who was picked by the Chargers in the sixth round, also led on special teams. He had six special teams tackles and made sure the strip Claypool recovered in the Camping World Bowl after the Irish’s first possession against the Cyclones ended in a three-and-out.
Finke was Notre Dame’s primary punt returner in 2019. He returned 20 punts for 180 yards, with the longest return of 46 yards coming in the Camping World Bowl. The graduation of the former walk-on and 2019 Campbell Trophy Semifinalist, who signed with the 49ers shortly after the draft, leaves the punt returning job vacant.
Shannon, the top long snapper in the 2015 recruiting class, more than met expectations at Notre Dame. A starter since his sophomore season, Shannon won the inaugural Patrick Mannelly Long Snapper of the Year award in 2019 and earned a game ball against Stanford after recovering a muffed punt. His graduation leaves an intriguing vacancy as well.
Key 2020 Contributors:
Doerer had his doubters when he was tasked with replacing Justin Yoon, the leading scorer in Notre Dame’s history, but the rising senior largely put his kickoff struggles in his first two seasons behind him (though he only managed 40 touchbacks on almost 90 kickoffs in 2019) and impressed as a placekicker in 2019. Doerer made 85% of his field goals, which bettered Yoon’s accuracy in his last three seasons, and was perfect on his two kicks from beyond 50 yards. Doerer also went a perfect 57-for-57 on PATs, becoming the first kicker in Irish history to post a 100-point season.
The freshman punter had the unenviable task of filling the shoes of the legendary Tyler Newsome, but the Tuscaloosa, AL native was largely up to the task. Bramblett’s ability to get solid hang-time on his kicks meant that opponents were able to return just 18 of his 63 punts, and only two of his 20 punts inside the 20-yard line went for touchbacks.
The number-one long-snapper in the 2020 class appears to be Shannon’s natural successor, but the D.C. native should face stiff competition for the job his freshman year from rising juniors Michael Vinson and Axel Raarup.
Fan-favorite Bauer led the Irish with 13 special teams tackles in 2019, and his blocked punt deep in Michigan territory could have given the Irish major momentum early-on at the Big House. Johnathan Jones fumbled the recovery, however, and Michigan capped a long drive with a field goal before romping to a 45-14 victory, Notre Dame’s worst loss against the Wolverines since the Charlie Weis era.
The rising senior enjoyed a breakout season at linebacker, leading the team with 13.5 tackles for loss and tying Khalid Kareem’s team-high 5.5 sacks. The Hampton, VA native remained a vital contributor on special teams coverage as well. Owusu-Koramoah was second on the team with seven special teams tackles, including two highlight-reel hits versus Louisville and Stanford. Given the role Claypool and Gilman played on special teams in 2019, it would be unsurprising to see Owusu-Koramoah continue to contribute on kick coverage in 2020.
The freshman D-Lineman only featured in four games to preserve his redshirt eligibility, but he made his name known to Irish fans with a game-changing play against Stanford. With the Irish trailing a struggling Stanford 17-7 in the middle of the second quarter, the Antioch, CA native came up with the block to set up a first-and-goal for the Irish at the Cardinal one-yard line. Notre Dame went on to score 31 unanswered points en route to a 45-24 to finish the regular season.
The rising junior exploded on the scene in 2019 with two TD runs of more than 50 yards and two touchdown receptions. Polian perhaps previewed his plans for 2020 by handing kick returning duties to Lenzy in the Camping World Bowl, where he returned three kicks for an average of 23.7 yards.
Lawrence Keys III
The sophomore receiver led the Irish with ten kickoff returns in 2019. The New Orleans, LA native averaged 19.4 yards per return and had a 45-yard return versus New Mexico, Notre Dame’s longest of the season.
Besides Finke, Wilkins was the only member of the Irish to return more than two punts in 2020, though the sophomore had little room to run on both occasions. He will likely battle Keys III, Foskey, and incoming four-star running back Chris Tyree to be Finke’s primary successor.
Hayden Adams — Sports Editor
After giving up two kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2018 — one against Michigan and one against Pittsburgh — we saw a marked improvement from the unit in 2019. That said, there was also a lot to be desired. Don‘t get me wrong, it was great that Jay Bramblett and especially Jonathan Doerer exceeded expectations in their first year starting, and Claypool, Gilman and Owusu-Koramoah wreaked absolute havoc causing turnovers. But “Fair-Catch” Finke still pretty much lived up to his nickname, and Brian Kelly even said they were pretty much throwing in the towel on returns early on by taking advantage of the new rule that fair catches on kickoffs are granted a touchback.
However, they did eventually start experimenting with kickoff returners, giving chances to Lawrence Keys III, Jafar Armstrong, Kyren Williams, Braden Lenzy and Michael Young, but most struggled due for varying reasons. Also, Young should have provided a long overdue kickoff return touchdown, but the ball miraculously slipped out of his hands. Lenzy could provide the most burst if he stays healthy, but I‘d like to see more here and on punt returns, one way or another. All in all, the lack of a return threat coupled with what‘s lost in Claypool and Gilman worries me, but I have faith in the stability Polian provides at this position. B
Gregory McKenna — Sports Writer
The departures of Yoon and Newsome had many Irish fans worried, but Doerer and Blamblett have seemed up to the task so far. Doerer’s range should be an asset in close games and will be an edge over most opponents. Similar to the many turnovers forced by the defense in 2019, Notre Dame’s kick and punt coverage teams made critical plays that masked some offensive deficiencies. If the Irish are to stay with opponents such as Wisconsin and Clemson, I think this will have to continue. Notre Dame’s return game, however, left something to be desired in 2019. If the Irish are to be a true CFP contender in 2020, I think Lenzy and Tyree need to show their explosiveness when returning kicks. A-