Brian Polian shares vision for upgrading Notre Dame's special teams

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The moment the casual phone call turned serious was when Brian Polian realized he was speaking the same language as Brian Kelly when it came to special teams.

The magic word was “starters.” As in not being quarantined from participation in things like kickoff coverage and punt blocks.

Suddenly a conversation initiated by Kelly to console Polian about an unhappy ending as head football coach at Nevada digressed into a hypothetical conversation about special teams philosophy.

Kelly had an open mind. Polian was an open book. Before the two hung up, Kelly had both a new philosophy and a new special teams coach — Polian.

Well, new for Kelly. Polian served as Charlie Weis’ special teams coach in Polian’s first tour of duty at Notre Dame (2005-09). He later worked for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M in the same capacity.

This time he’s essentially a full-time special teams coach.

That distinction was made possible by the confluence of the NCAA’s seemingly imminent rubber stamp of a 10th full-time assistant in April across NCAA Division I and Kelly’s desire to flip the script on an apocalyptic season for special teams that not only statistically underperformed, but made game-changing gaffes with alarming regularity

Kelly is adamant, though, that he would have dedicated an assistant to special teams even if the limit for full-time assistants had stayed at nine.

It’s not the first time Kelly has charged into the offseason looking for a new approach, a new sense of urgency, a new alchemy for transforming chronically ordinary special teams. But it’s the most expertise combined with the widest pick of the roster he’s thrown at the problem.

“We spoke at length about being smart with our use of personnel,” Polian said, “but also knowing that, specifically in the coverage units, there might be times where we need front-line offensive and defensive players up there.

“There’s always a place for a role player. But when you face the USCs of the world and some of the elite people in the country, you’ve got to have front-line people on the coverage units, and I know coach understands that.

“It’s my job to balance the desire to have our best guys out there and also be smart in making sure we’re doing the best job we can with the people that we have.”

Fear of injury on special teams won’t be an issue, taking a cue from the way Stanford used All-America running back Christian McCaffrey regularly on punt returns and kickoff returns.

“They can get hurt on any play,” Polian said. “There’s injury risk stepping off the curb outside the Gug (ND’s football complex). They’re here to play football. And if a guy has a chance to make a game-breaking play, we’ve got to be willing to put them out there.

“We’ve got to be smart about it too. (With McCaffrey), you weren’t putting him in to block on the front line. You had the ball in his hands, and he made a ton of game-changing plays.

“So if you’ve got a guy that can change the face of the game, then more often than not, you’ve got to be willing to put him out there.”

Beyond the personnel commitment, here’s a peek at the Polian/Kelly vision for upgrading special teams:

Kickoffs

Last season a combination of sophomore place-kicker Justin Yoon and senior walk-on John Chereson combined for a 39.4 percent touchback rate. That’s slightly higher than the national average (38.7) and a significant improvement over the 25 percent rate punter Tyler Newsome produced in 2015.

The down side was Yoon wore down, suffered an injury and, at one point, appeared to be a candidate for offseason surgery. But Polian also thought ND could do much better than the national average.

Case in point was former ND kicker Kyle Brindza, who had a 46.7 touchback rate in 2013 and a 64.1 rate in 2014.

So ND went out and snagged Jonathan Doerer in the 11th hour of the recruiting cycle, flipping him from Maryland’s recruiting class less than a week before signing day.

The 6-foot-3, 188-pound Charlotte, N.C., product wasn’t super accurate on field goals (9-of-16), but he had a 92 percent touchback rate, albeit from 5 yards closer to the end zone (the kickoff point in high school is the 40-yard line, as opposed to the 35 at the college level).

“He was banging on the table on this kid,” Kelly said of Polian. "I’ve got to agree with him. When we were able to look at his numbers, the way he kicked the football, he was as good, if not the best, in the country.”

As for Yoon, Kelly said he won’t need surgery, just rest.

“We feel like we overloaded him a little bit,” Kelly said. “He's not a big guy (5-10, 190). So knowing what he went through this past season, trying to do both, kind of breaking down a little bit, we wanted to keep him in his comfort zone.

“We think he's an accurate kicker. He can win games for you. Let's not mess with that.”

Punt return vs. punt block

In Kelly’s seven seasons, the Irish have blocked three punts — the most recent coming in 2015 via wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. In Polian’s five seasons under Weis, ND blocked eight punts.

Kelly is coming off his best ranking at ND in punt returns, with the Irish at No. 44 nationally in 2016. Polian’s best was No. 12 in 2005.

“In my first couple of years, we had Tom Zbikowski, and people said do you rush punts or do you return?” Polian said. “Well, tell me what we have.

“We had a great returner in Tim Zbikowski, and a unique one in that he didn’t have elite speed, but he made people miss and he was strong and he ran north and south. So we built our system around returning kicks, because we had a great one.

“Then we had Sergio Brown, who could block kicks, so all of a sudden we became a little more aggressive. I’ve got to figure out what we have and who the playmakers are and find ways to put the playmakers in position to have an effect on the game.”

Specialist expertise

For much of the Kelly Era, when a punter needed mechanical advice, his best recourse was former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. If the kickers needed an adjustment, they often went to outside tutors and/or former kickers.

Polian brings expertise in both areas.

“I can help the snapper and I can help the return guys, too, because I’ve been dedicated to this role the vast majority of my career. Early on, talking to guys like (Adam) Vinatieri and Hunter Smith, just kind of learning what was most important to them in their jobs has helped.

“I also recognized specialists are like golfers. There are some mechanical things that 100 percent have to be right, but there are also some things that are unique to everybody’s swing.

“I tell all these guys, ‘I’m not here to change your swing. I’m just here to make sure all the fundamental things and the technique things are correct.’ ”

Building a culture

The two players who have jumped off the tape at Polian, both in terms of enthusiasm for special teams and aptitude for them, are wide receiver Chase Claypool and safety Nicco Fertitta.

Now it’s a matter of finding players this spring who match that high standard and selling them on the importance of special teams to Notre Dame’s bottom line.

“It’s very important to me that we get everybody to buy in,” Polian said. “Certain players need to understand that their biggest contribution can come on the special teams. And some of the older players need to understand that you look up at Alabama and Clemson, and the elite teams in the country, and they have starters covering kicks.

“I want to establish a culture where everybody knows every guy can be thrown out there on special teams. The other part of it too, I want to help some of these players understand that if you dream of playing beyond college, then you have to do that.

“David Bruton (Washington Redskins) has made a heck of a career for himself by being a special teams ace. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking about that as part of the big picture, that being a quality player in the special teams is a big plus.”