How does a team that does so many things right — enough to be ranked in the S&P+ top 25 — wind up going 4-8?
There are plenty of over-arching reasons why Notre Dame plummeted to its worst season since 2007 this fall, be it strange coaching decisions or poor late-game execution. But special teams gaffes were at the forefront of Notre Dame’s issues, too.
So this week, Notre Dame fired special teams and tight ends coach Scott Booker, as first reported by Irish Illustrated and according to multiple reports. The move was necessary given those special teams struggles, even if it does remove an ace recruiter from Brian Kelly’s coaching staff.
Since being elevated from an intern to a full-time coaching staff member in 2012, Booker recruited a number of blue-chip high schoolers to South Bend. Among them: Defensive end Isaac Rochell, tight end Alize Jones, wide receivers C.J. Sanders and Kevin Stepherson and safety Jalen Elliott. Notre Dame’s two four-star tight ends in its 2017 recruiting class both were recruited by Booker, too, in Cole Kmet (Arlington Heights, Ill.) and Brock Wright (Cypress, Texas), though both are expected to stay with their commitments to Notre Dame.
Coach Booker is one of the main reason I even came to ND... great recruiter and a great person! Love you coach— Isaac Christopher Rochell (@Isaacrochell90) December 13, 2016
Much love to coach book.. has always been there for me since day 1. 🙏🏾— CJ Sanders (@TheLifeofCeej) December 13, 2016
But the special teams issues, combined with Notre Dame’s tight ends only having 33 catches over the last two seasons — which lost the school its self-described “Tight End U” moniker — negated whatever recruiting advantages Booker brought to the table.
Notre Dame ranked 79th in special teams S&P+, and opponents had an average starting field position of the 28.7-yard line, 53rd in FBS. Outside of Sanders’ pair of kickoff returns for touchdowns and Jarron Jones’ pair of blocked extra points, there wasn’t much that went right for this unit. Duke, N.C. State, Miami and USC all scored touchdowns against Booker’s special teams unit, with a blocked Tyler Newsome punt being the deciding score in Hurricane Matthew’s wrath in Raleigh. A muffed punt against Michigan State sparked the Spartans’ 36-point surge, and a too many men on the field penalty against Navy eliminated any shot of the Irish gaining momentum in that one-point loss (while a flag shouldn’t have been thrown, that Devin Studstill was that close to getting off the field in time was a problem).
Kelly said after Notre Dame’s season-ending loss to USC that he would search for the right blend of continuity and change with his coaching staff, allowing that “everything’s on the table.” Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford is reportedly bound for Western Kentucky, while Kelly reportedly will interview an outside candidate in Wake Forest’s Mike Elko for the open defensive coordinator position this week, too. And with Booker on his way out, that right blend may lean more toward change than continuity.