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Notre Dame’s kickoff woes go beyond the kicker

Michigan v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish signals from the sideline while playing the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 1, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame won the game 24-17. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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Going up 14-0 with touchdowns on each of its first two possessions should have set up Notre Dame to put away Michigan early on Saturday. It did not, as the Wolverines hung around long enough to make the final two minutes interesting before falling 24-17. Coming out ahead eliminated much, if not all, of the concern about the unnecessarily close contest, but the Irish are still aware they could have had a less stressful night.

“What we learned is that we have to finish off an opponent,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “We had opportunities to put Michigan in a very difficult position, and we did not. I think we learned a lot from that experience.

“When we see an opportunity to put an opponent away, we’ve got to have a dominant mindset and be able to do that.”

A large part of the Wolverines’ ability to hang around tied directly to subpar play from the Irish special teams. Michigan’s first-quarter field goal came as a result of starting a drive on the plus-41 yard line thanks to a whiffed punt from Irish fifth-year captain Tyler Newsome. After Notre Dame responded with a touchdown, the Wolverines scored one of their own with a 99-yard kickoff return.

Not much time needs to be spent worrying about Newsome. Removing the shanked 25-yard punt, he averaged 49.8 yards on his other five, sending two for touchbacks and dropping two more within the 20-yard line. He hit one punt wrong, nothing more than that.

Kickoff troubles, though, seem to start with sophomore kicker Jonathan Doerer’s nerves.

”As we continue to grow the attention to detail on special teams, we have guys that are anxious and need to just continue to focus on our process and relax and just have an attention to detail,” Kelly said. “There’s certainly a lot of really good players on that group, but the attention to detail is not where it needs to be.”

Kelly refers to plural players because Doerer’s poor kickoffs were not helped by strong coverage. As it pertains to Doerer, he will retain kickoff duties, rather than hand those over to senior kicker Justin Yoon. Yoon handled the last two kickoffs Saturday, sending both for touchbacks.

“I don’t want to use Justin Yoon,” Kelly said. “We needed to get [Doerer] right. Obviously he got in his own way, and he’s a talented played. We needed to go rescue him and get him out of the game. He wasn’t throwing strikes, but he’s going back in, and he’s going to kick off and he’s going to get it right. He’s a talented player.”

The disappointing kickoff coverage likely traces to a lack of practice. According to Kelly, Notre Dame went through a live kickoff just once in preseason practice. Logically, that was to avoid unnecessary injury and to focus on other areas of the game, but it clearly was not enough, even if claiming just one may have been a bit of hyperbole.

“Our attention to detail needs to get better on kickoff coverage, certainly,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot of moving pieces that are very simply fixed. Part of that is on me.”

The one bright spot on special teams — well, two, considering Kelly specifically praised junior long snapper John Shannon on Tuesday — was junior receiver Chase Claypool and his two tackles on punt return coverage. It was a return to a role he excelled in as a freshman but did not attempt much at all in 2017.

“Chase is maturing as a player,” Kelly said. “And quite frankly, understanding his importance to our football team and recognizing that he can make an impact in those areas. I’m proud of his development in the sense that he recognizes he has a talent that can help our football team.”

According to the stat sheet, Michigan sacked Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush twice and hurried him three times. The reality is ends Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich were in the backfield much more often than that, along with linebacker Devin Bush.

Yet, Kelly was overall pleased with how the line performed.

“They made mistakes. [Michigan has] good players, and that’s a tough scheme,” Kelly said. “But they overcame it with great communication. They helped each other. There was a lot going on. We were sliding together. Those guys were working well together.

“Very rarely was [sophomore right tackle Robert Hainsey or junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg] left out on an island. Somebody was sliding their way. There was a back that was over there. A tight end would kick. The center would push the guard off. In unison, that group was working really well together.”

Notre Dame moved up four spots to No. 8 in the AP poll today while the Wolverines fell back to No. 21. Florida State left the poll after Monday night’s blowout by Virginia Tech, who moved up to No. 12. USC dropped two spots to No. 17.

Remember, this poll has no effect on bowl games or the College Football Playoff.

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