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Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 29 Matt Salerno, senior punt returner, walk-on

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Notre Dame at Boston College

CHESTNUT HILL, MA - NOVEMBER 14: Notre Dame wide receiver Matt Salerno (32) waits for a kick during a game between the Boston College Eagles and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on November 14, 2020, at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Formerly No. 32, hence the above photo from the 2020 season, taken at Boston College in November.
Listed measurements: 6-foot ⅝, 196 pounds.2021-22 year, eligibility: A senior academically, Salerno has three seasons of eligibility remaining, though it is hard to imagine a walk-on sticking around to use them all.
Depth Chart: Salerno took over at punt returner last season when running back Kyren Williams became the offense’s workhorse, then-freshman running back Chris Tyree was not yet comfortable snagging punts, and receiver Lawrence Keys coughed up a return against Florida State in the red zone. Both Tyree and Keys, along with perhaps early-enrolled freshman receiver Lorenzo Styles, will get chances at punt return again in 2021.

Some fun can be had here, as by including Salerno in this “99-to-0” series, his fellow walk-ons may try to disown the member of Notre Dame’s “Walk-On Players Union Nation,” as they did when Salerno was included in the Irish billboard campaign earlier this spring, his face plastered above Los Angeles.

But would there be any greater proof of concept for name, image and likeness legislation than a walk-on currently paying his tuition finding some sponsorship income? Maybe Ford can put a Notre Dame jersey on a crash test dummy and give Salerno some due, a reference to Salerno’s response after getting leveled by an illegal hit against Syracuse in November.

Salerno totaled 10 returns for 45 yards in 2020, fair catching 23 others, never putting the ball in jeopardy, a key for a punt returner. (Pun only mildly intended.)

The inclusion of Salerno in this series is as much an attempt at thoroughness as it is an opportunity to discuss a common complaint of Irish fans. By leaning on a walk-on or former walk-on at punt return for the last four seasons, Notre Dame has supposedly abandoned an explosive punt return game.

That is not how Irish special teams coordinator Brian Polian sees it.

First of all, a punt return cannot be explosive if the ball is not safe. Tyree’s admitted lack of confidence in the gig and Keys’ documented struggles protecting the ball made it a difficult task to put a traditional speedster at the position in 2020.

“The security of the football in the transition of it from our defense to our offense is the single most important factor,” Polian said in April. “If [Tyree] is not yet comfortable and there are times when he articulates to us, ‘I’m not quite there yet,’ I’m not going to roll him out there on national TV if he’s not comfortable yet.”

Frankly, Tyree probably deserves commendation for being self-assured and mature enough to admit his insecurity to the coaching staff while he was trying to impress as a freshman.

But the common complaint goes beyond the personnel. Notre Dame appears to not set up blocking for a big punt return, either. Some of that is nuance: College return rules make most common and formerly effective blocking formations illegal and, more accurately, increasingly ineffective.

“With the college rules, different than the NFL rules, anybody can leave at the snap of the ball, so now you’re getting these big wide formations,” Polian said, then acknowledging the “three fat guys in the back” in front of the punter, typically known as up backs. When they are the only players remaining to block for the punter, seven others are racing down the field to harass the returner.

“That style of punt makes it harder,” Polian said. “You’ve got too many people around the returner when the ball is coming down. … The reality of it is that the game has changed. The style of punt, the rugby punts, the balls on the ground, the amount of people that are around your returner as the ball is coming down, that has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, and if you don’t recognize that change and you’re just saying, ‘Boy, they used to return more punts than they do now,’ you’ve got to recognize that the game has changed.”

Polian has, in fact, tried to turn that change into an Irish advantage. Sending pass-rush specialists like Isaiah Foskey, Jordan Botelho and even the lengthy Alexander Ehrensberger after the punter forces the opponent to either restrain some of those down-field tacklers or hurry its punt. Hurrying a punt can lead to three things, and two of them are bad for the punting team.

— A typical punt.— A blocked punt, as Notre Dame blocked two last season.— A hurried punt mishit by the punter and thus shorter than the typical punt.

“If we heat people up and we make them uncomfortable and we force a poor kick, that’s as good as an 8-10 yard return,” Polian said.

In fact, Irish opponents averaged 40.23 yards per punt last season, No. 34 in the country.

For that matter, Salerno’s returns would have ranked No. 36 in the country if he had returned two more punts and thus been statistically eligible for national leaderboards. Looking back at Chris Finke’s three-year average of 8.31 yards per punt return, he would have ranked No. 19 in the country last season.

Notre Dame has not abandoned the punt return by placing a walk-on downfield to catch the punt. It has prioritized security while dialing up a rush to still alter field position.

Salerno is a known commodity, and a trusted one. The Irish can do worse than lean on him to field punts cleanly. If nothing else, he will not hand an opponent a golden scoring opportunity as Keys did against the Seminoles.

But those other possibilities remain more tantalizing, and if one can find some trust from the coaching staff — be it Tyree, Keys, Styles or even senior receiver Braden Lenzy — then Salerno may become a backup security blanket.

When Notre Dame handed the job to Salerno, it was that dichotomy that led to the walk-on taking over but also having had to wait a few weeks to do so.

“He was effortless back there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in September, two weeks into the season. “He had been back there all camp. We also had Kyren back there, and with Kyren’s load and everything he was doing, it just made sense to go with [Salerno] because, like I said, he’s been effortless catching the football.

“No, he doesn’t have maybe the kind of explosiveness that Kyren has, but you feel really comfortable with him back there. That’s why we went with him.”

DOWN THE ROADScholarship numbers are murky coming out of the pandemic. Notre Dame may or may not thus give Salerno a scholarship this season. Either way, the odds of him returning in 2022 are slim.

But a scholarship in 2021 may be the only way to keep Salerno behaving, apparently.

Let’s try this again
No. 99 Rylie Mills, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 98 Alexander Ehrensberger, sophomore defensive end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, early-enrolled freshman defensive tackle the size of a Volkswagen
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, fifth-year defensive tackle-turned-end
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, early-enrolled freshman tight end, a former high school quarterback
No. 87 Michael Mayer, star sophomore tight end and lead offensive weapon
No. 85 George Takacs, senior tight end, ‘152 years old’
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, sophomore tight end
No. 82 Xavier Watts, sophomore receiver
No. 81 Jay Brunelle, speedy sophomore receiver
No. 80 Cane Berrong, early-enrolled freshman tight end
No. 79 Tosh Baker, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 78 Pat Coogan, incoming freshman center
No. 77 Quinn Carroll, junior offensive lineman
No. 76 Joe Alt, incoming and towering freshman offensive lineman
No. 75 Josh Lugg, fifth-year right tackle, finally a starter
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, junior offensive tackle, possible backup center
No. 72 Caleb Johnson, early-enrolled offensive tackle, former Auburn commit
No. 70 Hunter Spears, junior offensive guard, former defensive tackle
No. 68 Michael Carmody, sophomore offensive tackle
No. 62 Marshall guard Cain Madden transfers to Notre Dame, likely 2021 starter
No. 57 Jayson Ademilola, senior defensive tackle
No. 56 John Dirksen, senior reserve offensive lineman
No. 56 Howard Cross, junior defensive tackle
No. 55 Jarrett Patterson, the best Irish offensive lineman
No. 54 Jacob Lacey, junior defensive tackle
No. 54 Blake Fisher, early-enrolled freshman left tackle, starter?
No. 52 Zeke Correll, junior, starting center
No. 52 Bo Bauer, senior linebacker, #BeADog
No. 50 Rocco Spindler, early-enrolled freshman offensive guard
No. 48 Will Schweitzer, early-enrolled freshman defensive end
No. 44 Devin Aupiu, early-enrolled freshman defensive end
No. 44 Alex Peitsch and No. 65 Michael Vinson, Irish long snappers, both needed
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, fifth-year defensive tackle, eventual record-holder in games played
No. 40 Drew White, fifth-year linebacker, three-year starter
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, fifth-year kicker, using the pandemic exception
No. 38 Jason Onye, incoming and raw freshman defensive end
No. 37 Joshua Bryan, incoming freshman kicker
No. 35 Marist Liufau, junior Hawaiian linebacker
No. 34 Osita Ekwonu, junior defensive end
No. 33 Shayne Simon, senior linebacker

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