Notre Dame signee Justin Yoon embraces pressure of starting opportunity
Justin Yoon is safe inside his bubble.
It’s the place, regardless of his surroundings, where nothing can touch him. No lights. No crowd. No eyes boring into his back and voices ricocheting off of his helmet.
For that moment, however brief, there is just a football, those uprights and the unwavering focus of Justin Yoon.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. The soon-to-be Notre Dame freshman football player, now ranked by Rivals and 247 Sports as the nation’s No. 1 kicker in the 2015 recruiting class, grew up playing ice hockey in South Korea. He was drawn to that game’s unyielding pace — three periods of frenzied activity with a few deep breaths jammed in between.
Yoon didn’t know it at the time, but hockey was preparing him for a brighter future — and a different sport.
“I think hockey definitely helped me in the lower-body aspect,” Yoon said. “Being able to skate on ice isn’t an easy thing. With growing and developing my leg strength, it really helped me.”
In some ways, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound kicker’s current destination — Notre Dame — was unintentional. He wasn’t raised on a football field, effortlessly digesting the game’s finer points and visualizing his own promising future. His weekend was never built around golden domes or Saturday tailgates.
Then, in eighth grade, a football coach in Nashville, Tenn., asked Yoon to try kicking.
And so he did.
And he never stopped.
“For a middle school kid, I guess I was pretty good,” Yoon said with a chuckle. “I didn’t know what ‘good’ was, really. I just started to kick for the fun of it, and it was pretty interesting. I continued to do it, and I started to like how the flow of the game went. I wanted to kick more and more.”
Suddenly, rapidly, the ball started rolling. Yoon enrolled at Milton Academy in Milton, Mass., and joined the football team. He played hockey on the side, but his focus began to shift.
His new sport presented its own unique challenge — an altogether different pace that included long stretches of inactivity, followed by a single moment to bloom or wilt. It was a team game, yet his role was profoundly, unabashedly individual.
Yoon embraced the inherent pressure. With an uncannily strong leg and an unusual absence of fear, the football newcomer found his bubble.
“I don’t really focus on people looking at me or what they might say,” Yoon said. “That’s what’s really interesting and fun about it — that intensity. Everybody’s there watching that single moment, but I’m also in my own little bubble and I don’t really see other people. That’s what really fascinates me.”
In his junior season, in 2013, Yoon connected on 9 of 11 field goal attempts, with a long of 48 yards. He also hit 38 of 39 extra-point tries, and 37 of his 53 kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.
Despite missing the majority of his senior season with an injury, Yoon was invited to participate in the 2015 Under Armour All-America game, where he made good on all three of his field goal attempts, including a 47-yarder that was the longest in the game’s history.
In the biggest game of his life, in front of more fans and cameras than ever in his albeit brief career, Yoon didn’t falter.
He didn’t even think.
“It was unexpected, but I was just ready whenever he (coach Herm Edwards) told me to come out,” Yoon said. “I never really thought about it. It was just, ‘I have to make these kicks.’ ”
That experience with pressure should help prepare Yoon for the next leap in his progression: Notre Dame. Without the services of departed kicker Kyle Brindza, the Irish will lean precariously on Yoon — a true freshman — to handle the place-kicking duties in his debut on a national stage.
“Somebody that will impact us probably more than maybe any one player on this (freshman) roster is Justin Yoon,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day, in February. “Justin, out of Milton Academy, is going to be our kicker, and he'll come in and start right away. We think he's the best kicker in the country.”
How’s that for an introduction?
During his sophomore season at Milton Academy, Yoon sent multiple e-mails to coaches at Notre Dame, trying to stir up potential interest.
For more than a year, no one responded.
“I thought, ‘Maybe this school just doesn’t have an interest in me,’” Yoon said Thursday.
Less than three years later, Yoon will run out of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium, surrounded by more than 80,000 fans, and prepare to start in the first game of his college career.
Oh, how things change.
Nowadays, hockey is just a hobby. Yoon closes his eyes and tries to visualize what that first kick will feel like, though he acknowledges that his most vivid dreams will likely pale in comparison to the enormous, overwhelming reality.
A right leg strengthened by countless hours spent maneuvering the contours of an ice rink have carried him this far. A consistent calm in the midst of enormous pressure has provided him an opportunity.
But in South Bend, will the bubble pop?
“I’ll find that answer there,” Yoon said. “At the moment, I feel that I’ll be in my bubble again. But it’s not a guarantee. Hopefully I will be, and I can do my best for Notre Dame.”
Today's feature story on Notre Dame incoming freshman kicker Justin Yoon is the first in an ongoing weekly series of profiles taking a look at the members of the incoming Irish freshman football class.