Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams, now featuring Chris Tyree, but how much?
When it mattered most, Notre Dame could count on Jonathan Doerer in 2020. Without the senior kicker, the Irish would not have beaten No. 1 Clemson in November, needing at least 16 of his 17 total points that night to pull off the upset. But when it didn’t matter as much, Notre Dame could not necessarily count on Doerer, otherwise going 11-of-18 (61.1 percent), a precipitous drop for someone who was once on track to become the most accurate kicker in Irish history.
But like just about everything, the coronavirus pandemic may have played a role in Doerer’s struggles, less an excuse than a reason for optimism for Notre Dame that the now-fifth-year kicker will return to form in the gift of an extra year of eligibility in 2021.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The primary names have not changed. For the true specialists, the Irish have relied on the same pair for two years now. Punter Jay Bramblett has held the starting gig since he arrived in 2019 and kicker Jonathan Doerer took over all kicking duties the same year once Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer Justin Yoon’s career concluded.
But the Irish returners in 2020 were a new duo. Walk-on Matt Salerno stepped in to field punts after receiver Lawrence Keys proved a bit loose with the ball and freshman running back Chris Tyree’s first collegiate touch came on a kickoff return in the first quarter of the season opener, a return that ended up being his longest of the season (38 yards). That switch to Salerno was needed to fulfill Notre Dame’s top priority on returns, and the fact that Tyree was trusted to do the same from the outset was a remarkable vote of confidence from the Irish coaching staff that may have slipped past most notice amid all the chaos of 2020’s offseason.
“The security of the football in the transition of it from our defense to our offense is the single-most-important factor,” special teams coordinator Brian Polian said Tuesday. “... In the end, whoever’s back there, the first choice is going to be predicated on ball security, first and foremost.”
Salerno’s work was minimal, fair catching more often than not, but that was an asset in and of itself. Notre Dame could so trust Salerno to catch a punt securely, it then dialed up its punt block rush, successfully blocking two punts while flustering myriad others.
“If we heat people up and we make them uncomfortable and we force a poor kick, that’s as good as an 8- to 10-yard return,” Polian said.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Doerer’s 17-of-20 field-goals performance in 2019 could be considered too small a sample size to assume such reliability, but when his motion was clicking, his kicks looked so true that reliability was hard to doubt.
Then he missed eight field goals in 2020. If it wasn’t the yips, Polian’s description of Doerer’s struggles certainly sounded like a facsimile.
“He couldn’t quite get comfortable, and then it became a confidence thing,” Polian said. “‘Hey, I’m just gonna try and ease it through the uprights.’ It’s frustrating to him and it’s frustrating to me that I couldn’t help him more at the end of the year, because you think back to the Clemson game, and we don’t win that game without Jon Doerer.”
Polian pointed to the lack of spring practices and a truncated and stuttering preseason in 2020 for hampering Doerer’s mechanical build-up into the year.
“I think Jon really was affected by the loss of the spring and part of the summer last year, there’s no doubt. He said as much. Physically, he didn’t feel like the year before.”
Fortunately for Doerer, the NCAA’s blanket eligibility waiver in 2020 allows him a chance to come back in 2021 for a fifth active season. He’ll be joined by Bramblett yet again, himself a pillar of consistency that largely held true through the pandemic.
“I thought he did a very good job last year,” Polian said. “But the next step in the progression now is to be more consistent in terms of the mechanics, in terms of turning the ball over and making sure that we don’t have that 36-yard punt. Even our misses have to be good. But I’ve been very pleased with Jay’s progress here this spring.”
Tyree will continue to work at kick return, looking to build off his 20.7 yards per return average. But at punt return, Polian is still pondering possibilities. Tyree may seem the obvious likelihood, but fielding a punt is far different than a kickoff. The latter may not be in Tyree’s wheelhouse just yet.
“We recognize how good a football player Chris Tyree is,” Polian said. “... If Chris 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.”
The Irish have tried early-enrolled freshman receiver Lorenzo Styles, classmate Philip Riley and Keys this spring, per Polian, all as well as Tyree.
The graduate transfer rule and the coming (any day now, literally, probably) one-time transfer exception legislation have made player movement a frequent occurrence. After players depart, the norm is for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly to offer some bland platitude immediately after they announce their intent to transfer, words almost always sparked by a specific media question.
Polian deviated from that, complimenting a past special teams stalwart to answer an open-ended question.
“Jack Lamb might have been our best special teams player last year,” Polian said. “He played phenomenally.”