Pain from the past drives Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza into the future

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND —Every cold stare is worth it now for Kyle Brindza.

Every incorrect prognosis, every bad piece of advice, every doubt, every dagger to his soul that he was less than everyone else.

Success is not only the Notre Dame senior kicker/punter’s revenge, it’s turned him into a rebel with a cause. And part of that is to be as un-kicker-like as he can possibly be when he’s not actually kicking, as his nine career tackles attest.

“Being told that I’m not going to be able to walk or play a contact sport, even like soccer, it’s just something you don’t want to hear as a kid,” said Brindza, born with a club right foot, a congenital birth defect that was corrected by numerous surgeries and a stubbornness to ignore doctors’ advice to sort of live his life in a bubble.

“My mom had a mind-set and I had a mind-set, ‘Put the odds against me. I don’t care. I’m going to throw it out the window and do what I do.’ ”

And as 11th-ranked Notre Dame (2-0) approaches Saturday night’s Shamrock Series matchup with Purdue (1-1) in Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium, Brindza is doing what he does on an elite level.

The 6-foot-1, 236-pound Canton, Mich., product is 3-for-4 on field goals this season and 15-for-16 in his career in game-winning, game-tying, overtime or fourth-quarter, lead-extending kicks.

He’s connected on his last 59 extra point attempts and this season has booted 80 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks. Of the mere two that were returned, he made a solo tackle on one of them.

That 80 percent touchback rate (12-of-15 with one out of bounds) is up from 46.7 percent in 2013, 36.6 percent in 2012 and 16.9 percent in 2011 when kickoffs were from the 30 instead of the current spot, the 35-yard line.

His biggest improvement is in his punting game, not necessarily in average (41.6 vs. 41.2 career average), but in his hang time. Of his nine punts in 2014, not one has been returned.

“I always just tried to kill it,” he said Wednesday night after practice. “Now I don’t care if it just goes 40 yards, I’m just trying to make it unreturnable.”

That’s a notable cause this week, given that one of the few statistical bright spots for the Boilermakers through a narrow win over Western Michigan and a 21-point spanking from Central Michigan is punt returning.

Purdue ranks 13th nationally as a team (22.0 average) and defensive back Frankie Williams ranks fourth individually (28.0). Future opponent Ty Montgomery of Stanford leads the nation with a 39.3 average.

Brindza’s exploits in last Saturday’s 31-0 farewell flattening of Michigan helps explain how the Irish were able to milk 31 points out of 280 yards of total offense and why Michigan only got past its own 40 on half of its 12 drives.

“He's been obviously really big in flipping the field position,” ND fifth-year head coach Brian Kelly said. “What else can you say about him? He does everything for us. We're getting the great effort that we need on all those units.”

It hasn’t been an accident. Kelly brought in Cincinnati Bengals punter Kevin Huber to work with Brindza during the summer. Huber was a two-time All-American for Kelly at the University of Cincinnati and eventually a fifth-round draft choice.

Mechanically, Huber helped Brindza with his drops — “And drops are everything,” Brindza said.

Mentally, (he helped too),” Brindza continued. “You’re talking about a guy who broke his jaw (and a vertebra last December).

“People say punters and kickers are head cases. You would think that guy would never come out again, but he’s already back on the field, just because he knows what he wants, and what he wants is what he’s going to get. That’s how I’m kind of going with my senior year.

“Whatever I want, I’m going to go out and get it. I don’t care who’s in my way. Whether that be working on my hang time or perfect field goals for that game or kicking a touchback. If that’s what I want, I’m going to go get it.”

It’s not a mentality that’s exactly out of character. At Plymouth (Mich.) High School, Brindza’s head coach, Mike Sawchuk, taught him not to think like a specialist.

“So that was me going into the weight room, being the strongest kid on the squad,” said Brindza who also played goalie for the boys soccer team and threw the shot and discus for the track team. “That was me being the toughest kid mentally and that was me being who I wanted to be.

“And that was to be self-confident, walk around with confidence and when I step on the field for that kick, I know that it’s going through.”

Kelly does his part by trusting Brindza to sort of coach himself in some respects. When Brindza isn’t participating in team practice periods at the LaBar Practice Complex, he often wanders over to Notre Dame Stadium to do visualization exercises.

Brindza also was the one who put himself on the kicking equivalent of a pitch count this year, where he typically only kicks off with a ball on Saturdays to save his leg strength. That practice is paying huge rewards.

He still texts back and forth with Huber and keeps in close contact with his long-time outside kicking coach, former Michigan kicker Brandon Kornblue, who actually was cheering on Brindza, but only for Brindza, in last Saturday’s Michigan-ND game.

“I’ve always gone to Kornblue and I’m always picking people’s brains,” Brindza said. “But at the end of the day, I’m alone and pretty much I’ve got to understand what I’m doing wrong.

“I’m just a confident kid. I’ve always been. I’ve always had the odds put against me. So whenever I mess up, just throw it out the window, just prove every one wrong.’

Again.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Notre Dame kicker Kyle Brindza is flourishing as a senior. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)