What You Need To Know About Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football Special Teams Heading Into Spring Practice
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What You Need To Know About Notre Dame ST Heading Into Spring Practice

During Notre Dame's 4-8 debacle in 2016, special teams snafus had a major hand in five of the defeats, from Duke changing the game's momentum on a kickoff return for a touchdown in a 38-35 win, to North Carolina State blocking a punt in the fourth quarter that was returned for a touchdown in a 10-3 victory.

While special teams errors always are conspicuous, Notre Dame's placekicking, punting and coverage teams have provided mostly strong, consistent play the past several years. If the return games can develop a few more dynamic plays, the Fighting Irish could elevate that aspect of the game from a B-level grade to A.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish football fifth-year senior kicker
Kicker Jonathan Doerer and punter/holder Jay Bramblett begin their third season as starters. (ACC Media)

Analysis

When combining experience, clutch performance, data from the past three years and overall quality depth, special teams should remain an asset for Notre Dame.

• Placekicking/kickoffs and punting duties each return third-year starters in Jonathan Doerer and Jay Bramblett, respectively.

• Backing up returning senior long snapper Michael Vinson is sophomore Alex Peitsch, formerly the nation’s top recruit at his position. Arriving in the summer will be freshman kicker Josh Bryan, rated the No. 1 kicker in the 2021 class per Chris Sailer Kicking.

• The kick and punt coverage units have ranked among the nation’s finest in recent years, and the three mainstays on the four units — Isaiah Pryor, Bo Bauer and Jack Kiser — all return. Last year the Irish were one of only six teams that placed in the top 25 in both kickoff and punt return coverage.

The final piece needed is some more oomph with the return game.

Who’s Gone

No one who is strictly a specialist.

Who’s Back

Fifth-Year Senior K Jonathan Doerer

Following a superb junior campaign in 2019 when he converted 17 of 20 field goals, he hit a slump over the final five games last season when he was 4 of 9 to finish 15 of 23 on the year.


Senior PR Matt Salerno

The walk-on made his first appearance in the second game, took over in the fourth after an injury to junior Lawrence Keys III, and finished the year with 45 yards on 10 returns (long of 13) and no fumbles.


Senior LS Michael Vinson

The walk-on ended up starting every game despite the Fighting Irish signing the nation’s top-rated long snapper, Peitsch, in 2020.


Junior P Jay Bramblett

Produced another quality year with a 42.8 average on 43 punts. His 14-yard run off a fake to pick up a first down in the opener against Duke changed the game’s momentum, and he made a clutch tackle of Clemson running back Travis Etienne on a return right before halftime in the upset of the Tigers Nov. 7.


Sophomore KR Chris Tyree

Averaged 20.7 yards on 22 returns, with a long of 38 yards — which came on his first attempt.

Position Battle To Watch

Freshman wide receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr.’s game-breaking skills as a return man could challenge reliable senior walk-on Salerno on punt return duties. Salerno proved a consistent option with his sure-handedness, but if Styles can prove that quality as well this spring as an early enrollee, he could supply an extra dimension.

As a senior at Pickerington (Ohio) Central, Styles returned three punts and one kickoff for a score. Last year, freshman Chris Tyree was inserted as the top kickoff return man in the opener, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Styles is given a similar role on punts.

By The Numbers

3 Consecutive years Notre Dame’s special teams finished among the top 30 nationally in the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) stats by Football Outsiders that rank all 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. This takes into account myriad factors, including field position. The Irish had placed No. 61 in 2017 and No. 81 in 2016 when special teams setbacks cost them dramatically in numerous losses.


44 Yards in punt returns by the opposition during the 12-game 2020 season. Punter Bramblett’s hang time either resulted in 27 fair catches or helped Notre Dame’s coverage team to position itself for quick tackles. The Irish finished 18th nationally in net punting (41.28 yards).


75.0 Percent of career field goals (33 of 44) converted by Doerer, who also has been successful on 111 straight extra points (25 off the school record of 136 by Craig Hentrich).

The field goal percentage is on pace to be the second best in school history with a minimum of 50 attempts. Doerer’s predecessor Justin Yoon is at the top at 80.8 percent (59 of 73), while 1984-86 kicker and fifth-leading scorer in NFL history John Carney is currently second at 73.9 percent (51 of 69).

Associate Head Coach/Special Teams Coordinator

Brian Polian — Fifth Year

He served in the same capacity during the five-year Charlie Weis era (2005-09) prior to working at Stanford and Texas A&M, and then serving as head coach at the University of Nevada from 2013-16.

The recruiting coordinator from 2018-20, Polian traded that title with defensive line coach Mike Elston and is now associate head coach.

Prior Position Previews

Quarterbacks

Running backs

Wide Receivers

Tight Ends

Offensive Line

Defensive Line

Linebackers

Defensive Backs

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