Analysis: Brian Polian's return gives Notre Dame a chance to be special
SOUTH BEND — There are as many gaps as answers in Tuesday's press release that put an official stamp on Brian Polian’s return to Notre Dame. Maybe more.
That’s not to say some of the unfilled blanks aren’t replete with promising possibilities.
The presumption is that the 42-year-old former Charlie Weis assistant will add instant octane to the Irish football team’s special teams, or at least eradicate the kind of cataclysmic blunders that meant the difference between winning and losing this past 4-8 season — specifically in setbacks to Michigan State, Duke and N.C. State, and very nearly in an escape of Miami (Fla.).
But even an older, wiser version of Polian — and now with head coaching experience himself — needs Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s cooperation and a cultural shift in the player ranks to make the surface commitment work.
Polian indeed is a full-time special teams coach, a distinction made easier by an expected NCAA rule change allowing for a 10th full-time assistant coach but one Kelly apparently would have made anyway.
“He simply understands Notre Dame, what it’s about, and the type of student-athlete that we need to succeed at the highest level,' Kelly said in a statement. "I’m extremely excited to have Brian join this program, and our players will benefit from his mentorship, passion, energy and enthusiasm -- both on and off the field.”
The 10th assistant proposal, when introduced by the Division I Council in October, received zero pushback at the time. The same body will put it to a formal vote in April. And if adopted, the proposal would go into effect immediately, according to NCAA associate director Michelle Hosick.
Teams would be free to use that assistant any way they want — as a second set of eyes for the defensive line, for instance, or a second defensive backs coach, or a recruiting specialist.
Polian actually was an elite recruiter during his first tour of duty at ND, and also at Stanford and Texas A&M in between coaching with Weis and taking the Nevada head coaching job in 2013. Polian and Nevada had a mutual parting of the ways last month after four years, capped by a 5-7 season in 2016.
While Weis played a large role in some of the Irish prospects Polian ultimately landed from California and Hawaii, the frequent-flying assistant’s haul in four complete cycles included quarterbacks Jimmy Clausen and Dayne Crist; tight ends Konrad Reuland, Will Yeatman and Joseph Fauria; wide receivers Shaq Evans and Robby Toma; running back Cierre Wood; offensive lineman Taylor Dever; linebacker Anthony McDonald; and 2012 Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o.
As far as on-the-field duties, Kelly chose to have Polian fill one of the two functions previously filled by recently deposed special teams/tight ends coach Scott Booker.
During Polian’s initial run at ND (2005-09) his primary, but not sole, job was special teams coach. Former walk-on Mike Anello, ND’s top special teams coverage player in recent memory, estimates Polian spent about 80 percent of his time on special teams and 20 percent helping out a position coach.
Anello was part of an Irish kickoff coverage team that finished No. 1 in the nation in 2008. He also helped the punt coverage team to a No. 27 ranking that year. In total, he made a stunning 23 special teams tackles out of a possible 72 on kickoffs or punts that season.
For comparison’s sake, freshman Chase Claypool wowed the fan base with nine special teams tackles in 2016. Jarrett Grace led the Irish in special teams tackles in 2015 with 10.
“If you have a guy whose No. 1 responsibility is special teams, he ends up watching more film,” Anello said of Polian in a 2013 interview with the Tribune.
“He’s going to get you prepared. Every practice we had, the first 20 minutes of every meeting time was special teams. We’d go over the scheme, watch film and go over who we had to account for and how we were going to do that.
“And it’s not just coverage stuff. Brian Polian had us set up for some great fakes on punts and field goals. We were always ready to use them if need be.”
There were peaks and valleys, though, statistically under Polian when it came to the six major special teams categories (kickoff coverage and returns, punt coverage and returns, net punting, and field goal kicking). But no disasters.
Particularly where coverage is concerned, one bad play can skew the entire season stat-wise. There’s also a randomness in whether you face elite returners or not in a given season. But more often than not, special teams play has underperformed in the Kelly Era, and in 2016, it was an absolute albatross.
Polian is scheme-savvy when it come to special teams, but there aren’t a lot of walk-ons like Anello who can run the 40-yard dash at 4.45 seconds or faster. So is Kelly going to let his new special teams coach raid the starting lineup for some assistance?
And are the best possible return men going to be available? Stanford, with star running back Christian McCaffrey heavily involved in the return game before opting to sit out the Sun Bowl, and likewise USC with All-America cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and Oklahoma with running back Joe Mixon, are exceptions.
Kelly's teams could have been more dynamic in the return game, for instance, had Will Fuller and Michael Floyd, been involved sooner and more regularly. But is that kind of investment worth the injury risk?
Unlike stats such as total defense, rush defense, turnover margin, pass efficiency and rush offense, elite special teams play is not an essential championship metric.
In fact, among the four teams in this year’s playoff, only Ohio State is well above average in special teams play. And even then the Buckeyes have a wart with a No. 102 ranking in punt returns.
But even in ND’s contending years under Kelly, 2012 and 2015, there was a thin margin for error offensively and defensively. And improved special teams could provide more breathing room for those units.
Now that Kelly has committed the coaching expertise to the cause, it will be interesting to see of the player personnel and practice time pieces follow suit. If so, it’s up to Polian to build the attitude to pull it all together, which was one of his accomplishments at ND a decade ago.
“If you look at some of the best teams, they struggle on special teams, because no one wants to play them,” Anello said. “And people don’t appreciate those yards can change games and change momentum. But we did.
“A lot of guys just go through the motions on special teams, even on game day. Whereas you look at our guys, everyone was going down hitting, trying to make plays and carrying out their responsibility. We had a swagger.”
Will the swagger return?