Brian Polian in search of next step for Notre Dame special teams

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The Gong Show will have to wait.

Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian will arrange a talent show of his own as several Irish players vie for a chance to work as punt returners and kick returners.

But spring practices inside the Loftus Sports Center prevent any opportunities to have real punts and kicks falling from the sky. So those auditions will likely be postponed until preseason camp, which is a bonus for the freshmen arriving this summer.

That's fine with Polian.

"The kickoff return spot is really kind of wide open," he said. "I'd like to rep (sophomore) Jafar (Armstrong) there, see what that looks like. Braden Lenzy, Joe Wilkins Jr., Tariq Bracy — we have some freshmen coming in that were explosive-space guys that you would say, 'All right, I think this is going to translate.' It's far easier to be a kickoff returner as a younger player than it is a punt returner."

Experience will likely lead to senior Chris Finke retaining his role as the team's punt returner. He replaced C.J. Sanders, who left the Irish program in the offseason, late in 2016 and returned 24 punts for 156 yards with a long of 41 yards against Stanford last season. Sophomore wide receiver Michael Young, a backup last season, will compete for the punt return job too.

Plenty of room exists for Notre Dame to improve at both positions. The Irish finished in the lower half nationally in kick return (20.34 yards) and punt return (6.24 yards) average last season.

In his second season as Notre Dame's special teams coordinator, Polian has focused on developing the personnel across all special teams. He's discussed the notion of establishing a core group of special teams contributors who can be relied on for a number of units.

"We were using too many mixes of people last year," Polian said. "When you look at the amount of guys that ended up playing different spots, I'm not sure there were enough that you said, 'This guy is a difference maker on three or four units.'"

Polian has his eyes on one player he wasn't allowed to use last season.

"The one name I think about that I'm so excited to get out there and play is Alohi Gilman," Polian said. "He is going to be a difference maker for us certainly on the coverage units and in spaces in the return game."

Gilman had to sit out last season following his transfer from Navy. Now the 5-foot-11, 200-pound junior has a chance to play a vital role on special teams and find the field on defense at safety.

The special teams contributors will end up being a mix of little-used young players and trusted veterans, but the personnel isn't the only concern for Polian. He wants to take the special teams units to another level.

Last season, he said, was more about eliminating mistakes. In 2016, the Irish lost two games with significant errors on special teams. N.C. State's game-winning touchdown came on a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, and Miami took the lead in the fourth quarter on a fumbled punt return by Sanders. The season-opening loss to Texas in overtime may have been avoided if a 36-yard field goal attempt by Justin Yoon wasn't blocked late in the third quarter as well.

The biggest disaster for Notre Dame's special teams last season came on a blocked punt against N.C. State. The Wolfpack recovered the loose ball for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead, but the Irish were able to rebound and offense and defense in the 35-14 victory. Sanders also fumbled on a kick return in the 38-20 loss to Stanford when the Irish were trailing by 11 in the fourth quarter.

"When you look at where we were statistically, we're average to a little bit below in a lot of phases," Polian said. "But we didn't give up the huge plays. We stopped the bleeding, now we have to get it back moving in the other direction where we're taking the ball away."

During offseason film review, Polian identified four loose balls that the Irish failed to recover for special teams turnovers.

"We need to now positively impact the game. That is my job first and foremost. It's to put us in the best schemes, to get the right people out there," Polian said. "Ultimately now, we have to identify some difference-making personnel. Some guys that cause double teams or that can beat a double team, that can consistently win one-on-one. We need to do a better job of that."

And make sure the gong is ready for the fall.

Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian celebrates with players following Notre Dame's 21-17 win over LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN