Notre Dame Football In Need Of Kick Start To 2019
The primary question marks about Notre Dame’s 2019 roster have become extremely familiar throughout the spring and entering this preseason.
Defensively it’s about finding a consistent, competent rotation at linebacker, a second reliable cornerback and a stoutness in the interior line to hold one’s own along the middle.
For the veteran offense, it’s enhancing explosiveness at all the skill positions to increase the un-Playoff-like 31.4 scoring average last season while other such contenders were at least a touchdown beyond that and in the 44-to-48 range. In their four defeats the past two years, the Fighting Irish scoring average was 12.5 points, with a high of 20.
Often overlooked or perhaps taken for granted has been the four-year (2015-18) starting run of kicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome.
Yoon holds the school career records in most points scored (367), field goals converted (59) and field goal percentage (.808), with at least 40 made. Newsome, the program’s first captain as solely a kicking specialist, is second on the all-time chart in punting average (44.0), 0.1 behind only 16-year NFL veteran Craig Hentrich.
Ready or not, freshman Jay Bramblett has been entrusted with punting duties, just like predecessors Newsome and Ben Turk (2009-12), although Newsome redshirted a year before starting in year two.
As an early entrant this spring, Bramblett’s lone competition has been sophomore walk-on Jake Rittman, although both placekickers, junior Jonathan Doerer and freshman preferred walk-on Harrison Leonard, are listed on the 2019 roster as “K/P”, indicating a potential capability to punt in a pinch.
It wasn’t until the Blue-Gold Game that Bramblett faced some true “live” action. His capability was displayed on one 49-yard punt with good hang time — but the other seven averaged a mere 32.9 yards with numerous mis-hits.
Such an average, especially in environments such as Athens, Ga., or Ann Arbor, Mich., or anywhere, could lose the field-position battle and spell the difference between another run to the College Football Playoff or a second-tier bowl.
What makes head coach Brian Kelly and the staff confident is that with Bramblett having been also a terrific quarterback at Hillcrest High in Tuscaloosa — where he passed for 2,341 yards while completing 68.5 percent of his passes as a senior — the college football stage won’t be overwhelming to him. Plus, the presence of two-year starting long-snapper John Shannon helps make his role a little easier.
“He didn't punt it great in the spring game, but we like his makeup,” said Kelly of the 6-1, ½, 188-pound Bramblett, the nation’s No. 5-rated punter by Rivals last season while earning West Alabama 6A/7A Player of the Year honors. “We think he's going to stand up to the environment in the big games. So that's just a matter of repetition and technique. We just like his demeanor and his makeup, and we think he's just going to be fine.”
The lanky 6-3, 203-pound Doerer has been on the college football stage the past two years as a kickoff man, but lost that role for a while to Yoon when misplaced directional kickoffs were returned for touchdowns by Michigan and Pitt that helped keep them in the game right to the closing series. Three other Doerer kickoffs also hooked out of bounds.
After a slow start this spring, some correctional measures in his technique helped the strong-legged Doerer finish positively the final two weeks, other than a 39-yard attempt in the spring game that hit the left upright. Kelly admits Doerer’s progress has been “an ongoing process,” so he plans to put him in more challenging situations during the preseason than he did with the firmly established and consistently clutch Yoon.
In his one start last year when Yoon was injured versus Navy, Doerer missed his first extra point attempt, and nearly the second as well, before settling in, including a 30-yard field goal in the 44-22 rout.
It is inevitable that Doerer, or Leonard, will face several clutch kicking situations in 2019. Typically, Notre Dame will have about five “one-score” games per season, as it did last year with Michigan and USC (24-17 both times), Ball State (24-16), Vanderbilt (22-17) and Pitt (19-14). In those pressure-packed moments, special teams play often can spell the difference.
“Jonathan Doerer has had a really good buildup, and we have seen the kind of confidence buildup that's necessary to feel confident moving into camp,” said Kelly of Doerer’s positive finish in the spring. “This is not a guy that has the veteran presence of the all-time leading kicker here at Notre Dame that Justin Yoon had, so we have to do some things in our practice schedule to put him in those situations.
“We feel like we've seen the kind of progress necessary to feel really confident he's going to be able to do the job for us.”
As with anything, answers can’t really be reached until facing actual situations when they are for keeps.