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Brian Mason’s special teams bring ‘aggressive’ play to Notre Dame, Marcus Freeman’s ‘challenge everything’

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Temple at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 02: A detailed view of a Notre Dame Fighting Irish goal post is seen on the field during the NCAA football game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Temple Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on September 2, 2017 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Marcus Freeman is fond of saying “Challenge everything.” The phrase showed up in his introductory press conference in early December, and before long, Notre Dame players were parroting the thought, though more in motivational terms than as Freeman’s philosophical concept.

New Irish special teams coordinator Brian Mason’s preferred motto runs parallel to that.

“Don’t live your life in fear,” Mason said.

Specifically, Mason was referring to blocking kicks and punts, something his Cincinnati special teams did six times last year. Most teams pull up short out of fear of drawing a 15-yard penalty for running into the kicker or punter. Mason won’t let that risk stop him.

“We’re going to be aggressive and we’re going to be smart,” he said last week. “We’re not going to be worried about running into the kicker or running into the punter. We’re going to try to affect the kicker or affect the punter, just like the defense does on third down when they try to affect the quarterback. …

“Through making it a point of emphasis, working on it and being aggressive, it has allowed us to have a lot of fun and be successful doing it.”

The Irish blocked only one kick last year. Combine their last three seasons and they would match the Bearcats’ half dozen from 2021.

“We’re going to be aggressive and we want to be creative,” Mason said. “We do not want to be conservative. We want to find different ways that we can apply pressure and put stress on our opponent to create chaos in the football game.

“That’s what really gets me excited about it, finding different ways that we can be aggressive, enhance, adapt and be creative to find advantages in the football game.”

That has been less a Notre Dame failure than it has been a Cincinnati success. Only 18 teams blocked more than three kicks last season. Only 66 (of 130) blocked multiple kicks. (But perhaps do look at the abstract photo atop this article as evidence of how few photographers even considered the possibility of the Irish blocking a kick the last few years.)

“There’s a lot of teams in the return game, whether it’s field goal block or it’s punt block, that maybe are very conservative,” Mason said. “A lot of teams in college football are conservative because if you’re aggressive you might run into the punter.”

In other words, Mason’s special teams will “Challenge everything,” when everything is the equivalent of being conservative.

Freeman, 36, and Mason, 35, having such similar approaches makes sense, given they have coached together for seven of the last 10 seasons, Notre Dame the fourth stop where they have intersected. Mason’s first work at the Division I level came as a defensive graduate assistant at Kent State in 2012, where Freeman was the linebackers coach.

“You could just tell even early on and early in [Freeman’s] coaching career when I worked with him at Kent State that he was going to be a star,” Mason said. “There’s something special about the way he communicates. He’s got natural leadership to him, the way he relates to players, recruits. You could just tell he was going to be a really successful football coach. Obviously, as he’s gotten more and more experienced, he’s gotten even better.”

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