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Notre Dame's 2017 Over & Under: Special Teams

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Junior CJ Sanders has four career touchdowns off returns, two shy of tying the Notre Dame record.
Photo by Bill Panzica

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For the 2017 regular season, Las Vegas has installed Notre Dame’s over-under win total at 7.5, which means 8-4 would be a “win,” especially after last year’s 4-8 fiasco.

The over-under projection serves as a base expectation. Today, we present five on special teams for the 12-game regular season:


Over/Under: 2.5 Touchdowns Scored By Notre Dame

Junior CJ Sanders tallied two touchdowns apiece his first two seasons on kickoff or punt returns, and he has two more years to at least tie the school record of six shared by Tim Brown, Raghib “Rocket” Ismail and Allen Rossum.

Classmate Chris Finke could also be in the mix. His 23-yard punt return last year against Miami set up the game winner.

It’s easy to overlook how valuable special teams were during the 10-3 season in 2015 when the Irish scored four touchdowns with that unit, including off a fake goal and a blocked punt in close, hard-fought wins over Virginia and USC, respectively.

New special teams coordinator Brian Polian has made this his niche during his two decades in coaching, and he believes in Sanders he has one of his more dynamic return men since his days as Charlie Weis’ assistant (2005-09), when Tom Zbikowski was the top return man those first two seasons.

Sanders/Finke both possess the wiggle and breakaway speed to score again this year. Question is can Notre Dame add a game-changing tally off a blocked punt, fake field goal, fake punt, etc., as they did in 2015?


Over/Under: 1 Touchdown Yielded On Special Teams

The Irish surrendered a school-record five touchdowns last year on special teams, and four of them had a direct bearing in losses to Duke, North Carolina State and USC. The fifth almost did versus Miami when a muffed punt by Sanders resulted in a Hurricanes TD.

That’s why Polian said his first mandate is not about special teams necessarily winning games, but making sure they don’t help result in a Notre Dame defeat.

While last year was an implosion on special teams, in head coach Brian Kelly’s first six seasons the Irish allowed only two touchdowns in that area. After permitting seven total in seven years, no more than one would be the standard in 2017.


Over/Under: 39.0 Yards Net Punt

Senior Tyler Newsome has had 36 punts in his career that traveled at least 50 yards, which on paper is impressive. However, “hidden yards” tell a different story.

Last year, Newsome was 26th nationally in punting yards with a 43.5 average — but as a team Notre Dame was 106th in net punting with a 35.28 figure (after punt returns or blocks). The second figure is far more relevant than the first. The extra eight yards per punt can add up in the course of a game, and outcome.

Polian’s goal is to have a consistency with the unit that includes not outkicking the coverage, and he is shooting for a 39.0 net average. Last year, that would have placed them among the top 35 nationally . With a veteran such as Newsome, that should not be inconceivable, although there might be an adjustment to be made in his style.


Over/Under: 19.0 Yards Per Kickoff Return

Did you know that the 2008 Notre Dame kick return defense under Polian’s charge — and headlined by walk-on Mike Anello’s coverage — finished No. 1 nationally by allowing only 16.47 yards per return?

Last year the Irish were 95th in this category with a 22.26 average, most notably allowing two for scores. This and the net punting issue often helped Notre Dame lose the field position battle.

Achieving the 2008 number might be a stretch, but improvement from last year should be expected, which is why the 19.0 figure is somewhere in between.


Over-Under: Justin Yoon .800 Field-Goal Percentage

The junior has converted 28 of 34 field goal attempts at Notre Dame, a .824 percentage that puts him No. 2 on the school’s all-time chart among kickers who have had at least 40 attempts (David Ruffer was 33 of 40 from 2009‑11 for a .825 mark).

Unfortunately, there is a history at Notre Dame since 1980 where kickers have tended to falter after superb early starts. Harry Oliver, for example, in 1980 was 18-of-23 during the regular season on field goals while aiding several wins — and then the next year was 6-of-13 during a 5-6 season. The aforementioned Ruffer was 18-of-19 (.947) in 2010, but in his final year in the ensuing one he was a more modest 10-of-16 (.625).

Yoon was sidelined this spring because of leg weariness, but per Kelly should be good to go this August. Can he maintain his .800-caliber consistency?

Of course, situation and context are more important than actual percentage. If Yoon converts from 36 yards out as time expires in a 30-28 win, that’s far more pertinent than missing from 44 yards while holding a 42-14 lead in the second half, or vice versa.

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