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Coolican: Special teams an issue for Irish in Blue-Gold game

| Monday, April 25, 2022

Notre Dame lost a significant amount of production on the special teams unit in the offseason when reliable place-kicker Jonathan Doerer graduated and punter Jay Bramblett followed former coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian to LSU. Still, few expected special teams to look as poor as they did when the Irish took the field for the Blue and Gold game Saturday afternoon. 

Highly-touted freshman kicker Joshua Bryan failed to deliver on both his attempts Saturday, missing a 48-yarder, which was not particularly close, as time expired in the first half, and then followed that with a 37-yard miss in the fourth quarter. 

“We’ve got to improve, that’s a huge challenge. We had a scrimmage a couple weeks ago [where] I wasn’t pleased,” head coach Marcus Freeman said of the kickers after the contest. “If we want to be a championship-caliber football team, we better improve at the kicking game.”

More than likely, Bryan will be the starter come fall, but the team also brought in graduate transfer Blake Grupe from Arkansas State to provide competition. Grupe did make his first attempt, a 36-yarder, but missed from 41 later in the contest. 

The only punter currently listed on Notre Dame’s roster is Bryan Dowd, who also happens to be the starting goalkeeper for the men’s soccer team, which competes during the fall as well. Dowd punted for the Blue team, averaging 42 yards per punt. He clearly has the leg, but lacks the finesse, dropping just one of his six punts inside the 20.

Gracie Lee | The Observer
Graduate transfer Blake Grupe kicks the ball in the Irish’s annual Blue-Gold game this past Saturday.

Chris Salerno, listed on the roster as a kicker, handled punting duties for the Gold squad, averaging just 32.6 yards across five attempts. It is clearly a position the Irish will have to sort out before the season comes around. 

Another miscue came in the second quarter when Salerno fumbled the snap, kicked it just 20 yards, where it was subsequently muffed by Jaden Simonson and the Gold team recovered the loose ball. 

“We have to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Freeman said of the muffed punt. “We’ve got to make better decisions, and we have to improve at the areas that need improvement and enhance the areas that we’re pretty [good] at.”

The Irish will need to find a new return man as well, after running back Kyren Williams, who primarily handled those duties last year, declared for the NFL draft. Chris Tyree and Lorenzo Styles have experience in the return game, and while they provide explosiveness, the Irish need to ensure that whoever they trust with returns is fundamentally sound as well. This often comes with experience. Matt Salerno, Chris’ brother, is also an option. He fair-caught all four of his punt return attempts Saturday. 

New special teams coordinator Brian Mason will have his work cut out for him as he attempts to replace a reliable starter at nearly every special teams position this year. The Irish have one of the more difficult schedules in recent memory, facing off against teams such as Ohio State, Clemson, and USC, which all figure to be close games. Special teams could make all the difference between a great season and a disappointing one. It has to be one of Freeman and his staff’s main focuses as the team prepares for the new season.

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

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