Notre Dame freshman K Justin Yoon conquers stage fright

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Honesty, almost to a fault, is just one of the attributes that make Justin Yoon unique.

When the 5-foot-10, 185-pound newcomer to the Notre Dame football program considered the challenge of kicking on a stage light years beyond anything he had ever encountered, Yoon had no idea how he would respond – and said so.

Some freshmen would have taken a big bite of bravado and spit out as much macho as anyone can stomach at a single sitting.

Yoon, instead, chose take a different, much more humble route.

Twelve games into his college career – with selections to two major Freshman All-American teams in his hip pocket – Yoon can now add perspective to a season that included 15 of 17 field goals (a long of 52 yards against Navy), 46 of 48 PAT kicks, and a team-leading 91 points.

It wasn’t easy – especially his first two games when he had his two missed field goals.

“The transition from high school to college (was the lowest point),” said Yoon, who lives in Nashville but attended a boarding school in Massachusetts. “It’s a big difference, especially coming from (a fan base of about 100) to 80,000.”

And he’s only talking about those close enough to be heard inside Notre Dame Stadium. That doesn’t account for the millions watching on TV.

“At first, I didn’t think about it,” Yoon said. “After a while, you realize it. The first couple games, the first three, I had some trouble. After going through this experience, I built up my confidence through multiple trials and errors with (holder) DeShone Kizer and (snapper) Scott Daly.

“It’s all about the opportunities I’ve been given. Coach (Brian) Kelly gave me a lot of opportunities, I made sure I did my best on those opportunities.”

While Yoon puts more stock into the problems adjusting to the bigger stage as the source of the malfunction, Kelly, at the time, was adamant that Yoon’s issues were mechanical. Once he was able to work out the kinks of getting his hips where they should be, success followed.

“Coming in, it was a little difficult,” Yoon said. “Being with everyone here and getting used to the process, it made me feel more comfortable. My confidence level changed through the season. With everyone supporting me and believing in me, it helped me believe in them.”

“As the year’s gone on, I’ve learned little things that Justin likes,” said Kizer, who had plenty of time to practice as the holder when he was Notre Dame’s backup quarterback. He still made it work as the starter. “It’s all about making the kicker comfortable, whether it be a slight tilt; the way that you open up your stance to allow him to see the uprights and not be closed off. Small things like that, Justin’s been able to communicate to me to become a decent holder.”

Once things started to click within the operation, the kicks became automatic. He’ll head into the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day as a weapon for the Irish against Ohio State.

He’s not about to be intimidated by the opponent or the attention.

“It’s the same as every game,” Yoon said of the upcoming battle. “Team 127’s last game. We have to make sure we make everyone proud.

“It’s really special to be here with all these incredible players. I couldn’t ask for a better team.”

It’s a group that stayed with him, even during the struggles.

“After missing a couple, you’d think, ‘Oh wow, I’m missing a lot,’” Yoon said. “(Special teams coordinator) coach (Scott) Booker and coach Kelly did a really good job making sure I got through those. They’d tell me, ‘It’s not a matter of me missing, it’s what I do the next time; how I think about it the next time.’

“I made sure, the next time, ‘Hey, it’s a new ballgame; a totally different ballgame. I can make one, that’s awesome. Or, I can miss one.’

“I just made sure I was always composed and always positive. That made a big impact on me.”

In terms of an impact, the individual postseason honors probably made Yoon flinch more than kicking in front of 80,000 fans with high expectations on a regular basis.

“(Freshman All-American) meant a lot to me,” Yoon said. “I wanted to prove something to myself, and everyone in the world. It’s a big honor to have that. I never expected it. I just wanted to get through the season and make sure (we accomplish) our mission; our mission was to win a national championship.

“We didn’t get there, but I was proud about the way our team played. The fact that I got through the season with them, I understand how much hard work went into it.

“So much of it is composure.”

And being able to forget there are millions of fans hanging on every swing of his leg.

Notre Dame’s Justin Yoon (19) kicks for an extra point during the first half of Notre Dame-Stanford NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, in Palo Alto, Calif. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN