‘The Game Has Changed’ — Brian Polian Defends Irish’s Punt Return Strategy
Judging by the length and passion of his answers, Brian Polian craved the two inquires he fielded Tuesday about Notre Dame’s punt return game.
“I’m glad this question got asked,” Polian said, before rattling off a two-minute, five-second response. Then again, after a follow-up a few minutes later, he uncorked a monologue that lasted north of 2:30 and began it with, “It’s a really good question.”
Evidently, Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator is aware of the outsider disgruntlement with the Fighting Irish’s activity — or lack thereof — on punt returns last year. His two retorts were a mixture of a Ph.D.-level class on the subject and shushing a take he deems short-sighted.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say, ‘Boy, we’ve been fair catch central,’” Polian said.
That’s not said to dispute the fact Notre Dame fair caught 27 of the 39 punts its returners touched last year, per Sports Info Solutions, sixth-most nationally. Rather, he wanted to offer context he thought was needed, to highlight the non-unique nature of a return percentage so low and to explain the positive trade-offs that come with attempting fewer returns.
No, Notre Dame didn’t get as much out of its return game in 2020 as it did in prior years. The Irish missed 2018-19 returner Chris Finke, who averaged 8.2 yards per punt runback in his career. Those 12 punts they did return last season went for an average of 3.5 yards and a long of 13 yards. That’s well short of Polian’s standard of 10 yards per return.
What Polian stressed, though, is the increasing difficulty of punt returns and decreasing frequency of returnable punts in today’s game. Punting philosophy is different than it was in his first stint as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator in the mid-2000s, when Tom Zbikowski seemingly had room to run on every punt he caught.
“The game has changed. Punt has changed,” Polian said. “Everybody in college used to look like the NFL with the two wide gunners and I’d put Mike Anello out there, we’d have the vertical set and we’d get more returnable punts.
“College rules, they’re different than the NFL rules. Anyone [on the line] can leave at the snap of the ball. Now you have these big wide formations with the three fat guys in the back forming the shield — which is what we do.
“That concept, that style of punt, makes it harder. You have too many people around the returner when the ball is coming down. You get one, maybe two, really legitimate opportunities to return a punt in a game.”
His claim is numbers-supported. The 2020 Football Bowl Subdivision team co-leaders in punt returns per game were San Diego State and Iowa, at 2.9. In 2009, there were six teams who averaged at least three returns per game. Only three FBS teams have averaged three or more punt returns per game since 2016. A FiveThirtyEight story from Nov. 8 reported punts were being returned at an all-time low in 2020 through Week 9.
Furthermore, a high fair catch rate isn’t a phenomenon that only occurs at Notre Dame. Of the 15 teams that caught the most punts last year, 13 of them called a fair catch at least half the time. The same FiveThirtyEight research found the fair catch rate across the sport was at its highest ever and had spiked 20 points since 2004.
At the same time, Notre Dame’s fair catch rate soared from its 2019 level, when the Irish fair caught 19 of the 43 punts they received (44 percent). Without Finke and an early-season switch from Lawrence Keys III to Matt Salerno, Polian emphasized more than ever simply catching the ball and getting the offense on the field.
“There’s a lot of chatter out there about, ‘Why can’t we just put [running back] Chris Tyree back there to catch a punt?’” Polian said. “I don’t think people understand how difficult it is to catch a punt and how specialized a skill that is.
“In the end, the security of the football and transition of it from our defense to offense is the single most important factor. If Chris is not yet comfortable — and there are times he indicated to us, ‘I’m not quite there yet’ — I’m not going to roll him out there on national TV.”
Polian was also quick to cite a helpful byproduct that comes with decreased weight on returns.
Creating more havoc.
Notre Dame blocked two punts in 2020 and returned both for touchdowns. Opponents’ punting average dipped to 40.2 yards last year from 42.7 in 2019. The net average decreased from 38.3 to 37.8, respectively. It’s hard to establish certain causation between those numbers and increased heat on the punter, but Polian thinks they’re related.
“When we made the decision to put Salerno back there because he catches the ball, we amped up our pressure,” Polian said. “We blocked two punts.
“There are a bunch of times where we get close and we force a 38-yard punt. That’s a good thing. If we heat people up, make them uncomfortable and force a poor kick, that’s as good as an 8-to-10-yard return.”
But Polian and Notre Dame would like punt returns of that length more often in 2021. The returner job is open and has several candidates, including Keys and Salerno. Freshman receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. has practiced there this spring. So have Tyree, freshman cornerback Philip Riley and primary running back Kyren Williams.
Whoever gets the job will have passed Polian’s ball security test and be primed to explode when he gets those one or two chances per game.
“You never know which one or two it’s going to be,” Polian said. “You have to be working on all cylinders every snap so when we do get a legit return opportunity, we can take advantage of it.”
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