Notre Dame’s Final 2020 Data: Special Teams
In both 2018 and 2019, Notre Dame’s overall special teams efficiency finished No. 24 nationally among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in the highly analytical Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) used by Football Outsiders.
This year it was 29th, although it would be 14th among teams that played at least 10 games. Each of the top six teams in this category played seven or fewer games.
Among the factors weighting heavily into this rating are the average field position starting point that is wrought mainly through the kicking game.
During Notre Dame’s miserable 4-8 campaign in 2016, special teams efficiency ranked 81st, and major snafus in that area of the game were significant in contributing to at least five of the defeats.
In current special teams coordinator Brian Polian’s first season (2017), there was some improvement while ascending to a still modest No. 61 in special teams efficiency.
In each of the last three years, though, Notre Dame finished in the top 30 in special teams efficiency. Among the three other College Football Playoff teams this year, Clemson was 13th, Ohio State 18th and national champion Alabama 21st.
Here were some primary ratings with NCAA stats:
Kickoff Return Defense: 24th — 18.14
Punt Return Defense: 22nd — 3.67
Notre Dame continues to excel in the coverage areas, which often get overshadowed — until an opponent does break one.
None of the 23 kick returns by the opposition went beyond 37 yards.
Until the Rose Bowl versus Alabama, the Irish permitted only 24 yards on 11 punt returns, but then Heisman winner DeVonta Smith’s lone attempt went for 20 yards to bring the total average of 1.5 yards.
Prime contributors on all four coverage or return units were backup linebackers Isaiah Pryor, Jack Kiser, Bo Bauer and Jack Lamb, with only Lamb (in the transfer portal) not expected to return.
Last year there were only four teams we found that placed in the top 20 in both categories, and this year we found only six (including the Irish) that were among the top 25 in both.
Net Punting: 18th — 41.28
Sophomore Jay Bramblett quietly put together a second straight quality campaign with a combination of hang time and distance.
His average per punt of 42.8 yards on 43 attempts improved by 3.4 yards from last season. In 2019 the Irish allowed only 61 yards in returns, and this year it was 44.
For Polian and most special teams coordinators, if the net can be in the 38-yard range, that is a plus, so to have it just over 41 is well above average.
A former star high school quarterback, Bramblett also had one of the top game-changing plays this season in the opener versus Duke. After three straight three-and-outs by the offense to open the year, and facing fourth-and-eight from the Irish 21-yard line on the fourth, Bramblett gained 14 yards on the fake that set up the first Irish touchdown in a hard-fought 27-13 win.
Field Goal Percentage: 81st — .652 (15 of 23)
After Jonathan Doerer’s superb debut last year (17 of 20, .850) as the successor to the record-setting Justin Yoon, Doerer was on a similar pace for similar excellence, particularly after going 4 of 5 on field goals (two from 45 and 44 yards) in the 47-40 double-overtime win versus then No. 1 Clemson on Nov. 7. It was a clutch effort that made him 11 of 14 on the year. The lone miss was a desperation 57-yard attempt in that game.
Thereafter, though, he was 4 of 9. The clutch gene appeared to be back in the ACC Championship when he opened with a 51-yard make to give the Irish a 3-0 lead versus Clemson, but on the next series he shanked a 24-yard try that had a deflating effect.
There is a long history of Notre Dame kickers having excellent sophomore or junior years, but tailing off the following year, mostly as seniors (Harry Oliver, Mike Johnston, John Carney, David Ruffer). Doerer has indicated his plan is to return for a fifth year in 2021.
Kickoff Returns: 21st — 21.39 Yards Per Attempt
Punt Returns: 42nd — 9.14 Yards Per Attempt
As anticipated, freshman speedster Chris Tyree took over as the starter on kick returns. On his first career attempt he nearly broke it for a touchdown before getting stopped after a 38-yard return. Thereafter, his final 21 averaged 19.9 — with the last one eight yards versus Alabama that nearly resulted in a lost fumble on the opening kickoff inside his own 10-yard line.
Junior slot Lawrence Keys III began the year as the top punt return man, but after Keys' fumble versus Florida State and an injury, junior walk-on Matt Salerno (10 attempts, 45 yards) was inserted as the safe option for the final nine games.
The return average on punts was bolstered quite a bit by the 52-0 romp over South Florida in which freshman Jordan Botelho scored off a 54-yard blocked punt by sophomore Osita Ekwonu, while sophomore Isaiah Foskey also had a 31-yard return on another snafu.
Not including a blocked punt for score versus USC in 2015 and this year versus USF, Notre Dame has not had a score off a punt return since earlier in that 2015 season by the then freshman C.J. Sanders versus Massachusetts.
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