Notre Dame special teams looks to feed on Clemson
Tyler Newsome was hungry.
With 7 minutes and 47 seconds remaining in the second quarter last Saturday, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound sophomore sent a kickoff to the UMass 2-yard-line, wiggled around teammates and blockers and eventually ended the play he started, dragging kick returner Andy Isabella down at the 25.
While trotting off the field, Newsome repeatedly lifted an imaginary spoon to his mouth, basking in an unlikely spotlight, an homage to the “cooking dance” made famous by rapper Lil B.
In the moment, it was a harmless joke — something the Georgia native with the flowing blond locks laughed about during interviews after the game.
But consider the big picture, and Newsome’s gesture meant something more.
Throughout an undefeated 4-0 start, Notre Dame’s special teams have fed on all comers.
“I think our special teams were outstanding today,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said following the 62-27 victory over UMass. “Tyler Newsome, our punter, (had) a 52-yard average. C.J. Sanders returning a punt for a touchdown, (our defense) stopping a fake. I thought the special teams work was outstanding. So a lot of really good things.”
Notre Dame’s special teams have produced far more than a one-game flurry. Newsome, for example, is currently averaging 47.1 yards per punt, nearly 10 yards better than Clemson punter Andy Teasdall. The lanky sophomore is on pace to break Geoff Price’s Irish record for season average, who managed 45.4 yards per punt in 2006.
Newsome prepared in the winter and summer to eat in the fall.
“I put a lot of work in the weight room,” Newsome said. I love — love — going into the weight room and tearing it up. (Strength and conditioning) Coach (Paul) Longo, they have a great weight program here, and I’ve done everything I can do to try to get as strong as I can and work on my explosiveness.
“I think that has a lot to do with it.”
A kicker is only as good as his coverage units, however, and Newsome has been getting plenty of help from his friends. Notre Dame has allowed just 18.4 yards per kick return and 9.1 yards per punt return, balancing ideal hang time and disciplined pursuit.
Clemson, however, can’t say the same. The Tigers rank 121st out of 128 teams nationally in kickoff coverage, allowing an averaging of 28.1 yards per return. That number was grossly inflated on Sept. 17, when 5-7, 175-pound Louisville freshman Traveon Samuel corralled a kickoff on his goal line and chugged 100 yards — the first 98 of them untouched — for a fourth quarter touchdown.
Might Sanders, Notre Dame’s 5-8, 185-pound freshman, or kick returner Amir Carlisle be capable of the same?
“It’s one of those things that a lot of people don’t think much about until you get that one bad play,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “One play can completely change the game, good or bad. Certainly, kickoff coverage, that’s an area that we’ve got to improve in.”
Sanders certainly enters Saturday’s game with a renewed supply of confidence, after he wiggled through crowds en route to a 50-yard punt return touchdown — the first of his career — against UMass last weekend. It was Notre Dame’s first punt return touchdown since Golden Tate found the end zone against Pittsburgh in Nov. 2009.
If Sanders has his way, this drought will be significantly shorter.
“I think there’s just momentum now,” Sanders said. “Also, I can just tell that the guys know I have the ability to take it back. Now we just have to keep it rolling.”
In this area, too, Clemson is lacking. Through three games, the Tigers have averaged just 1.3 yards per punt return, ranking 121st nationally — again. They have been a force in kickoff returns, however, as Artavis Scott, Milan Richard and Ray-Ray McCloud have combined for a 30.6-yard average.
With the eyes of the College Football Playoff panel set on Death Valley on Saturday night, special teams — not Deshaun Watson’s arm or C.J. Prosise’s legs — may strike the fatal blow.
Only one team can eat, and Tyler Newsome is plenty hungry.