SOUTH BEND — “Hiccups” may have been too nice of a word.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly even indicated as much. His language would likely have been more colorful in describing the special teams mistakes made by the Irish in Saturday’s 35-20 victory over Virginia.
The blunders included an uncontested Virginia onside kick recovery to start the second half, a fumbled punt return by graduate student and captain Chris Finke and a missed 47-yard field goal by Jonathan Doerer.
Kelly wants to make sure those issues were aberrations and not the start of a trend. In the case of Finke, Kelly has a long résumé in which to have confidence. According to Pro Football Focus, Finke’s fumble of a Virginia punt in the second quarter was his first muffed punt in 117 fielded punts (59 fair catches and 58 punt returns).
“Chris Finke’s a very reliable player for us,” Kelly said. “We trust him. Chris would stand here in front and take full responsibility and accountability. He has to catch that football. He’ll be back out there catching punts. He’s the best player we have at that position.”
Finke took over the punt return position in 2016 after CJ Sanders had issues fielding punts. Finke did fumble once on a punt return against Navy in 2017, but he fielded the punt and tried to make two Midshipmen miss before the ball was knocked loose and recovered by Navy.
Virginia caught sophomore safety DJ Brown out of position on the onside kick. On the three previous Virginia kickoffs, Brown could be seen moving toward the middle of the field before Brian Delaney kicked the ball. He did the same thing at the start of the second half, which opened up a lot of room for Delaney to kick it short and allow cornerback Bryce Hall to recover the kickoff without any resistance.
Kelly said the kick return team should have been more alert to the possibility of an onside kick.
“When it comes to awareness,” Kelly said, “we have to be aware of — in all situations — an onside kick, especially when a team chooses to kick into the wind when they have the choice in the third quarter.”
The kicking game, a major focus in the preseason, hasn’t been a major issue before Doerer’s missed field goal. Doerer made two of his three field goal attempts in the first four games and has converted on all 19 of his extra points in his first season replacing Justin Yoon. Freshman punter Jay Bramblett’s 20 punts have resulted in an average of 41.2 yards.
“We just weren’t as good, and that is flat out want and desire,” Kelly said of the special teams units. “That will be addressed (Monday).”
Sophomore wide receiver Lawrence Keys III was conspicuously missing Monday from Notre Dame’s distributed depth chart for Saturday’s home game against Bowling Green (3:30 p.m. EDT on NBC). On Monday afternoon, a source confirmed with the Tribune that Keys had suffered an injury but couldn’t provide more details on the severity or type of injury.
Keys returned a kickoff for 16 yards in Saturday’s win over Virginia, but he didn’t record another stat after being flagged for a false start penalty in the second quarter.
The 5-foot-10, 173-pound Keys earned starts against New Mexico and Georgia as a receiver with junior Michael Young still recovering from a broken collarbone. Keys was still listed as a starter on last week’s depth chart, but Notre Dame used a starting lineup with Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley as the only two wide receivers against Virginia to go along with tight ends Cole Kmet and Tommy Tremble.
Keys registered seven catches for 70 yards, three rushes for 14 yards and two kick returns for 61 yards in the first four games. Young returned to the field against Virginia and caught three passes for 19 yards.
Young was listed as a starting receiver on Monday’s depth chart with sophomore Braden Lenzy behind him. Sophomore Joe Wilkins Jr. was listed as Finke’s backup as the slot receiver. Running back Kyren Williams slid into Keys’ spot as the starting kick returner with Wilkins also listed behind Williams.
Kelly did not volunteer any information on Keys nor was asked about him during the 23 minutes he fielded questions from reporters at his press conference Monday.
Credit for Notre Dame’s improved effort in the running game against Virginia can be shared along the offensive line and running backs. But the Irish tight ends deserve some credit too.
According to Pete Sampson of The Athletic, Notre Dame rushed 21 times for 156 yards and three touchdowns out of two-tight end sets against the Cavaliers. When the Irish used only one tight end and three receivers, the running game was limited to 34 yards and one touchdown on 12 carries.
Tight ends Kmet and Tremble helped create a big hole for running back Tony Jones Jr. on his 30-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Kmet, on the line of scrimmage next to left tackle Liam Eichenberg, sealed his defender to the inside. Tremble, lined up behind Eichenberg, served somewhat of a fullback role and cleared a defender to the outside.
Kelly said Tremble blocks better when he’s not attached to the offensive line.
“His ability to play in space is a little bit better than when he’s attached, because he just has great balance and natural strength,” Kelly said. “We like him a little bit better detached and in a movement position.
“Cole is a little bit better when he’s attached — works and communicates a little bit better with the tackle. When you’re attached there is some communication that has to happen with the entire offensive line. Tommy is still working through some of those things.”
Kmet, Tremble and junior Brock Wright weren’t the sharpest blockers in the first three games — though Kmet played only in the Georgia game. Per Sampson, Notre Dame’s two-tight end sets were averaging 2.53 yards per carry in the first three games.
Kmet said he was pleased with how the tight ends blocked against Virginia. He wants that position group to be a reason the running game can find more consistency
“We’re doing a lot of communicating with the tackles and guards,” Kmet said. “It’s our job to seal the linebacker, seal that D-end. We definitely can play a huge part in that.”
See more C’Bo
Sophomore running back C’Bo Flemister’s performance against Virginia may have overshadowed fellow sophomore running back Jahmir Smith’s return to the rotation.
Flemister took advantage of his opportunities in spelling senior starter Tony Jones Jr. Flemister rushed for 27 yards on six carries and caught one pass for 13 yards. He put back-to-back impressive plays together late in the first quarter when he broke multiple tackles on his 13-yard reception and 11-yard touchdown run.
Kelly said he wants to see the 5-11, 200-pound Flemister add strength in the future, but Flemister already has shown flashes of production as a runner and a willingness to help in pass protection.
“He has right now enough traits for us to count on him to give some carries and help us win,” Kelly said. “He’s certainly not a finished product, but he’s one that now has built trust amongst the coaching staff, and me in particular, that we feel comfortable putting him in the game to be a part of what we’re trying to accomplish in the running game.”
Flemister and Smith, who missed two games with a toe injury and rushed three times for eight yards on Saturday, have taken turns making impacts in the running game. Together they’ve combined for 27 carries for 62 yards and four touchdowns through four games.