With the start of Notre Dame preseason camp approaching fast, we’re looking at what to expect from each unit that’ll take the field Sept. 5 under the lights against Texas.
Kicker: Justin Yoon (Freshman)
Punter: Tyler Newsome (Sophomore)
Kick returner: 1. Amir Carlisle (Graduate Student) | 2. Greg Bryant* (Junior)
Punt returner: 1. Will Fuller (Junior) | 2. Greg Bryant* (Junior)
Yoon comes to Notre Dame as the top-rated kicker in 2015’s recruiting class, but since he’s never attempted a field goal at the college level he’s a question mark. Coach Brian Kelly likes the Nashville native’s strong, accurate leg but what’ll matter more is how he responds to inevitably missing his first field goal, whether or not it’s in a pressure-packed situation.
“I think you'll see him as being one of the real stars in this class in terms of impacting right away,” Kelly said on signing day.
Newsome redshirted last year with Kyle Brindza handling punting, placekicking and kickoff duties and will slide into being Notre Dame’s punter for the next three or four seasons.
Bryant’s expected four-game suspension removes him from the punt returning equation, so we’ll probably see an open competition to determine who takes his spot during preseason camp. Fuller fielded a punt last year, though any of Notre Dame’s underclassmen running backs or wide receivers could enter the mix here as well.
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Carlisle, who led Notre Dame in all-purpose yardage last year, is back for another year of returning kickoffs.
Biggest question: Can Notre Dame find consistency in its kicking game?
Brindza was a consistent, reliable kicker who hit plenty of big field goals until, seemingly out of nowhere, his success disappeared into an avalanche of shanks and misses. The senior connected on only three of his nine field goal attempts in November due to a combination of bad holds from Hunter Smith/Malik Zaire and a sudden loss of confidence. Brindza, though, was able to have a good end his college career when he hit a walk-off field goal to beat LSU in the Music City Bowl.
Notre Dame’s record last year would’ve changed drastically had its kicking battery been able to make a few more field goals. Smith dropped the snap on what would’ve been a game-tying field goal attempt at Arizona State, and Notre Dame’s furious comeback quickly fizzled in what wound up being a blowout loss in Tempe. Misses against Northwestern and Louisville were direct contributors to three-point losses, too.
In a best-case scenario, Notre Dame can give Yoon a soft landing at the college level. That means finishing drives instead of settling for field goals, especially in critical early-season games against Georgia Tech and Clemson. It’s easy to forget Brindza was one of the most important players for Notre Dame’s 2012 BCS Championship run, with the key fourth quarter kicks he hit against Oklahoma and USC propelling the Irish to an undefeated season.
Maybe Yoon would be up for the same challenge, but ideally, Notre Dame won’t have to find out.
While Brindza was ripped by fans for missing some key field goals in November, his ability to generate touchbacks on kickoffs still made him a valuable asset for the Irish last year. Opponents only returned 26 of Brindza’s 81 kickoffs (52 touchbacks, three out of bounds), which was good because Notre Dame’s kickoff coverage unit was one of the worst in college football.
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Opponents averaged 23.4 yards per kick return — ranking the Irish 15th-worst among FBS teams — and with a banged-up front seven and struggling secondary, it meant Notre Dame frequently allowed easy scoring drives. The Irish were better on punt return coverage, but Brindza’s ability to force fair catches meant opponents only returned nine punts against them last year.
Notre Dame’s defense should be better, but if Newsome/Yoon can’t generate the kind of touchback/fair catch numbers Brindza did, the Irish coverage units will have to improve. Otherwise, it could be something to again point to if the Irish lose a few close games in 2015.
They said it
“(He’s) going to be our kicker and he'll come in and start right away. We think he's the best kicker in the country.” — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly on Justin Yoon