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Ward: Irish special teams hanging by a thread

| Sunday, November 15, 2020

As fun as this rendition of the “Holy War” was, there is one part of this team that has concerned me all year and has once again failed to provide me much relief. Brian Polian’s special teams unit this year has been more inconsistent than any other group by far. 

There have been plenty of awesome moments. Polian’s drawn up some fakes for sophomore punter Jay Bramblett that, at least against Duke, resulted in a game-changing play. Senior placekicker Jonathan Doerer, barring a few exceptions, has been pretty consistent on field goal and kickoff duty. He went 17-20 a year ago but he missed one in this game to put him at 12-16 in 2020. He’s flawless on extra points the past two seasons as well. So there are absolutely no complaints from me on that front.

However, there have been a lot of hiccups with the special teams unit as a whole that have threatened to flip momentum to the opposition all year long, particularly on surprise onside kicks. Don’t get me wrong — onside kicks are one of the strangest and most exciting plays in football, and it can be almost impossible to prepare for them. However, this group has made some downright inexcusable errors. I could try to dig up each individual example to prove my point, but, to be honest, they rarely put these plays in the highlights because they are often deemed insignificant. Besides that, I just don’t have the time to dig through game footage and find every onside kick (of which there have been more than a couple) that have been recovered by an opponent but called back due to a penalty. This unit has been saved by the skin of its teeth several times this year, and that just isn’t encouraging. 

John Quackenbos | Boston College Athletics

Irish sophomore running back Kyren Williams is tackled during Notre Dame’s 45-31 win over Boston College Saturday. Williams lost a fumble against the Eagles two weeks after failing to secure an onside kick by the Georgia Tech Yellowjackets, continuing a trend of struggles covering onside kick attempts by this year’s Irish special teams.

Special teams don’t get a lot of attention because, frankly, their job is to not be noticed. People only talk about special teams groups if they are making mistakes. And they will usually have a specific target that is easy to attack, like a kicker. But Brian Polian’s group has made some ugly mistakes this year that have absolutely killed momentum during games that have seemingly flown below the radar. Their mistakes have seldom resulted in any severe consequences, but they are disconcerting because they continue to happen time and time again.

Now look, like I said, you can’t really practice an onside kick. In theory, you could line up across teammates and simulate an onside, but in reality, they are, typically, full-on, violent scrums and no one in their right mind would do this in a practice against teammates. It’s probably more for the kicker to get a feel of the motion. I understand that, but the two onside kicks in this game were downright sloppy. If Boston College would have been able to execute those two plays without committing penalties, there is no question that we would have seen a totally different game. Why does this matter? Because it is not the first time it has happened this season. It happened against Louisville, too. Junior running back Kyren Williams bobbled one against Georgia Tech and yet he is kept on the hands team. I just truly don’t understand what is going on with Polian’s group. 

He can’t seem to make up his mind with who he wants fielding punts even though freshman running back Chris Tyree has proven he is more than capable of handling the duty with his work on kickoffs. And most concerning, his group is continuing to make the same mistakes over and over again. Perhaps Polian is swamped with his recruiting responsibilities, but his group is turning plays that should seemingly be routine into plays typical of Notre Dame football, plays that make my blood pressure skyrocket. 

This is also important for this team holistically. It took two overtimes for them to beat a Clemson team that was starting a freshman quarterback and had a defense that was already weakened and continued to have players drop all night. If the end goal for this team is a national title, they will need to learn how to play games without making significant mistakes. Special teams plays are so often the decider of games. This team is great at delivering when they are asked to step up, but they need to work on eliminating silly mistakes that — if still lingering — could end up costing them a conference or even a national championship.

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

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