The rude awakening Jonathan Doerer encountered when he arrived at Notre Dame ended up being for the best.
Doerer’s first two seasons were so problematic that the Irish brought in preferred walk-on kicker Harrison Leonard last year to compete for the starting job. Not until last season did Doerer prove he’s capable of being a full-time starter.
And Doerer did more than just prove his worth. The senior entered this season perceived as one of the best kickers in the country and appeared on the Lou Groza Award preseason watch list.
To produce that seismic turnaround required Doerer to overcome adversity through introspection and maturation.
“I had certain expectations for what this was going to be like that were obviously wrong,” Doerer said. “So the thing for me for those first two years especially, it obviously didn’t go the way I liked. But they were a lot for me when it came to preparing for the next year. Having the opportunity to play allowed me to understand what I had to do, what I had to work on, how much more time and effort I had to put in this to get what I wanted to out of it.”
The Irish added Doerer in the eleventh hour of their 2017 recruiting class, flipping him from his verbal commitment to Maryland. Then he operated as the second-team placekicker behind Justin Yoon, Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer (329 points).
Those first two seasons behind Yoon saw Doerer mostly working as a kickoff specialist. Yoon had to intermittently replace Doerer once kicking the ball out of bounds became a problem. Four of his kickoffs were booted out of bounds in 2017 and 2018 combined.
An injured Yoon meant Doerer claimed placekicker duties against Navy in 2018. He missed his first extra point before making his next five and a 30-yard field goal. Doerer said by around that point, he would have never imagined the success he’s having now.
“When the calendar flipped after the Clemson game,” said Doerer about Notre Dame’s 30-3 loss in the College Football Playoff to end its 2018 season, “I really started to just take everything a lot more seriously and understand what I needed to do. From that perspective, I think when I was younger, I wasn’t thinking as much about what I needed to do.
“What does this look like? What does success look like? I didn’t believe as much that I was going to be as good. And I didn’t know what that looked like until I struggled a little bit.”
Not long after the Clemson game did Doerer decide he needed to make technical changes. A large portion of Doerer’s kicks that following spring featured a curving slice. At 6-foot-3, 197 pounds, Doerer brings athleticism and a powerful leg. But he showed inconsistency in his mechanics and ball striking.
Doerer said the lack of consistency and trust in his rhythm and routine contributed to his problems on field goals and kickoffs. Shortening his steps and being more compact on his swing helped. Practicing more — six times per week — also jumpstarted Doerer’s improvement.
“Poor analogy, but he could drive the golf ball 350 yards but he’d be in the trees half the time,” head coach Brian Kelly said about Doerer following the USC game last Oct. 12. “So it was about, ‘How do we get this young man to really hone in on this exceptional skill that he has?’
“And you know, he’s done an incredible job of really building a repetition in his swing, his leg swing, that he is so confident now in what he does that he’s unflappable.
“He can go into any situation and he trusts what he is doing, and it’s like anything else: When you go on that first tee and you trust your swing, you feel like you can hit it no matter what the situation is. He’s in a similar kind of state now.”
Kelly rewarded Doerer the game ball following that 30-27 win over the Trojans. He connected on all three of his field goals in that game, including a career-high 52-yarder that ranks third in Irish history. Doerer finished his junior campaign No. 1 all-time at Notre Dame with 108 points in a season. He went 57-of-57 on extra points and 17-of-20 on field goals.
“He always had the physical ability. His leg has always been above average,” special teams coordinator Brian Polian told the Tribune in April. “I think Jon learned how to take care of his body. Jon dedicated himself to the technique and his craft. It became less feel and more, ‘Hey, I know I need to do these couple of things correctly all the time.’
“I’m very proud of what Jon Doerer did last year. I’m very proud to be associated with his performance last year. But ultimately, that happened because Jon Doerer dedicated himself to it.”
Through two games this season, Doerer is 3-of-4 on field goals and 9-of-9 on extra points. His first field goal attempt — a 48-yard make against Duke — remains his season high. He missed from 38 yards against South Florida.
The No. 5 Irish (2-0, 1-0 ACC) will figure to give Doerer plenty of opportunities on Saturday (7:30 p.m. EDT on NBC) when hosting Florida State (1-2). The Seminoles yielded 52 points in a loss to Miami a couple weeks ago.
Another strong season from Doerer could put him on pace to become one of Notre Dame’s all-time great kickers. Especially because he now may return next year. In wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA ruled this season will not count eligibility-wise for Division I football players.
On Tuesday, Doerer said he “most likely” will return for his fifth year in 2021. That possibility was inconceivable before last season. So was the idea of Doerer becoming what he has after his tumultuous start.
“That kind of recalibrated my mind about success, what that meant for me and what I needed to do to get there,” said Doerer about his initial struggles. “I tried to be a lot more confident, comfortable and just take it one day a time. And understand that it may not be perfect, but I’m doing the best I can.
“And that’s the best I can do. I think that made a lot bigger of a difference. When I was younger, I didn’t have that with me.”