Kyle Brindza knows both ends of the spectrum of kicking in college football.
He experienced plenty of highs. In 2012, Brindza set the Notre Dame single-season record with 23 made field goals. To finish his career in 2014, he converted a 32-yard, game-winning field goal in Notre Dame’s 31-28 Music City Bowl victory over LSU. Brindza set the career mark for field goals made in program history with 57, a record only broken by Justin Yoon (59) last season.
Brindza knows the lows too. When he first took over the punting duties in 2013, his debut in the Blue-Gold Game that year included punts of 18 and 23 yards and an average of just 30.1 yards on seven punts. Brindza also missed 10 field goals in his senior season, including crucial misses in three-point losses to Northwestern and Louisville in consecutive weeks, as the Irish field-goal unit struggled with snaps and holds.
Brindza has experienced the pressure that comes with kickoffs, field goals, extra points and punts. He did all of them in his four seasons (2011-2014) with the Irish.
Brindza has been dealing with a different kind of pressure the last five months — one that includes little sleep and dirty diapers. In March, his wife, Katelyn, gave birth to their first son, Carter.
But he’s still keeping a close eye on Notre Dame’s specialists. Brindza, who currently works as an account executive for Duo Security, a cyber security company in Ann Arbor., Mich, wants to attend Notre Dame’s trip to Michigan in late October when the Irish take on the Wolverines.
“I’m already trying to get tickets and making sure it’s OK with this little guy’s mom that he can go on the field with me — at least for pregame,” Brindza said.
If Brindza gets to see the Irish play in person, he’ll see a Notre Dame team featuring a place-kicker and punter in their first seasons as full-time starters in those positions. Brindza already knows the names of junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, freshman punter Jay Bramblett and walk-on freshman kicker Harrison Leonard. That’s how the specialist world works.
“The specialists at large, even outside of Notre Dame, everyone knows each other,” Brindza said. “Even if you’ve never talked to someone, you’ve probably been with that other kicker or that other punter or that other long snapper at a camp trying to get ranked. There’s really only a handful of kicking coaches and snapping coaches around the country that get you ranked. So everyone knows each other.”
Former Notre Dame kickers, punters and long snappers of the last decade have formed a group text thread that adds the new Irish crop of specialists every year. Brindza said he’s hoping to get the group together for a trip back to campus in the future.
In his spare time, Brindza also works for Kornblue Kicking with kickers and punters in Michigan and around the Midwest. Brindza trained under Brandon Kornblue before joining the Irish. Brindza hasn’t worked with any of the current Notre Dame punters and kickers, but he knows what they’re about to experience.
As a sophomore, Brindza transitioned to the full-time place-kicker after only doing kickoffs as a freshman. Doerer has had two seasons of kickoff duty to prepare himself for field goals and extra points. He made his only field goal attempt of 30 yards and 5-of-6 extra points in last season’s 44-42 win over Navy.
“Saturday’s aren’t about just kicking off anymore,” Brindza said. “It’s not about getting in the game 3-7 times on kickoffs from the 35 and trying to get a touchback and hopefully stopping a tackle here and there. Now you have to go out there and be able to kick the PATs, then to kick off, hit the field goals in crunch-time situations and be able to put points on the board.
“From a physical standpoint, he has to make sure he keeps his leg in the forefront and not getting too tired. There are going to be some days where he’s going to want to keep kicking. He has to be able to stop. At the same time, from the mental capacity side of things, he has to start visualizing things.”
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said his confidence in Doerer has grown as the 6-foot-3, 203-pound kicker has embraced the opportunities given to him this offseason. There’s still work left for Doerer to do ahead of the season opener on Labor Day (Sept. 2) at Louisville.
“We’re going to put him in a lot of situations,” Kelly said. “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. Again, 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.”
Under current special teams coordinator Brian Polian, who took over the role in 2017, Notre Dame typically dedicates a portion of each practice to special teams work. Brindza also said Kelly scheduled enough scrimmage situations for punters and kickers to prove their ability in a preseason camp scenario. Even when the specialists would do work on their own during practice during Brindza’s time at Notre Dame, they would chart their reps as a group while also being filmed.
In the same way Ian Book needed to prove his mettle in games when he took over as the starting quarterback in game four of last season, specialists need to make sure their skills translate to game settings.
“You can tell a guy to drop back and throw a 50-yard bomb and see if he can put it on a rope, but if he can’t do that in a game-like situation and everything goes straight to his head and he forgets his mechanics and everything, it doesn’t matter,” said Brindza, who played under special teams coordinator Mike Elston (2011) and Scott Booker (2012-14).
“It’s the same thing for a kicker. Kelly does a good job of getting those game-like situations and that pressure put on them.”
By enrolling in January, the 6-2, 188-pound Bramblett was able to get his first taste of competitive college football in the spring. His Blue-Gold Game performance went slightly better than Brindza’s first spring game punting, but it wasn’t great either. Bramblett averaged 34.9 yards on eight punts.
Kelly’s not ready to panic about his new punter.
“Did he punt it great? No, he didn’t punt it great in the spring game, but we like his makeup,” Kelly said. “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.”
Bramblett came to Notre Dame ranked by 247Sports as the No. 2 punter in the 2019 class. At Tuscaloosa (Ala.) Hillcrest, Bramblett averaged 45.1 yards per punt while also playing quarterback. He was a star baseball player for Hillcrest too.
“It’s Notre Dame, right? Everyone knows what you do,” Brindza said. “Whether you do it good or you do it bad, you do it right or you do it wrong, they’re going to know. At the same time, (Bramblett) has to know that people are there in support of him. He was one of the top-rated punters. He just needs to keep that chip on his shoulder and not walk around like he has the big stick, but walk around knowing the reason why I’m here is the stuff that got me here.”
The ups and downs will almost certainly come for Doerer, Bramblett or even Leonard if he fights his way into a role this season. Physical ability matters, but their success will likely be dictated by mental strength. Brindza recalls the confidence he had kicking in a loud atmosphere at Florida State in 2014. Five weeks later, his knees were shaking in the Senior Day loss to Louisville.
“There are different times and different points — whether it’s in a game or throughout a whole season — that you have to be able to tell yourself, ‘Yes, I’m my biggest critic, but I have to turn that off,’” Brindza said. “I can’t be the one telling me, ‘You have to do this. You’re doing this bad.’ Just shake it off and keep going.”
If only it was that simple.