Improving starters lead Notre Dame's special teams units into 2018 season
Brian Polian wasn’t at Notre Dame when the Irish coaching staff recruited Nick Coleman out of Kettering (Ohio) Alter in the 2015 class.
That’s why Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator had his doubts the senior safety would be a viable candidate as a kick returner for the Irish this season. But after Coleman caught kickoffs cleanly early in preseason camp at Culver Academies, Polian looked up Coleman’s high school film and saw a talented running back.
“I said, ‘Wow. He’s a pretty good tailback.’ I was afraid he hadn’t run the ball,” Polian said.
But the 6-foot, 194-pound Coleman hasn’t secured the kick return job yet. His 1,125 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns from 2014 only carry so much weight.
Last Wednesday, Polian said he hadn’t seen enough separation between the kick returners to feel comfortable naming a starter. At that point, the Irish had worked on kick returns in a team setting only twice. The rest of the work had been done in individual drills.
That leaves kick returner as the biggest question mark left for Polian to answer on his various special teams units before Notre Dame starts the season Sept. 1 against Michigan. During Wednesday’s practice, the last preseason opportunity for reporters to watch the Irish, eight players were catching kickoffs: Coleman, cornerback Shaun Crawford, wide receiver Chris Finke and running backs Tony Jones Jr., Jafar Armstrong, Jahmir Smith, C’Bo Flemister and Avery Davis.
Polian mentioned Coleman, Crawford and Flemister, a freshman, as intriguing options when asked about the position last week.
Returning starters should fill the other top special teams roles: Finke at punt returner, Tyler Newsome at punter, John Shannon at long snapper, Justin Yoon at place-kicker and Jonathan Doerer on kickoffs.
Finke, who logged 24 mostly uneventful punt returns last season other than a 41-yard return against Stanford, has been joined by Crawford and safety Alohi Gilman working on punt returns this preseason.
The consistency of Newsome’s leadership was recognized in March when the graduate student was named a captain, but Polian has been working with Newsome to find more consistency in his punts.
Newsome’s average distance numbers haven’t fluctuated much in his three seasons as Notre Dame’s punter. He’s averaged 44.5, 43.5 and 43.6 yards per punt in each season. His career average of 43.8 yards trails only Craig Hentrich (44.1) in Notre Dame’s record book.
The number Newsome needs to be more consistent with is hang time.
“He’s like a golfer,” Polian said. “He wants to get up there and rip it. (New England Patriots head) coach (Bill) Belichick said it best. It’s not a long drive contest. You have to be able to hit all the shots.
“Sometimes Tyler’s best punt is when he’s swinging at 80 percent and hangs for 4.5 (seconds) and comes down at 44 yards. I’m trying to get Tyler to understand, 45 yards at 4.5 makes you an All-American. We don’t need to be hitting these moon balls every time, because we cannot outkick the coverage. We have to hang the ball up.”
Shannon, who will snap to Newsome on punts and to holder Ian Book on field goals, had a clean season last year in his first action as a redshirt freshman.
“If you don’t notice him, he’s doing a good job,” Polian said. “John last year had one hiccup, but other than that, he had a hell of a year for a freshman. It’s a security blanket as a special teams coordinator to know you have a guy for the next three years that has snapped in games.”
The numbers attainable in Yoon’s final season are well-documented. He could finish his career with the school record for points — he needs 46 points to pass Allen Pinkett’s 320 — and field goal percentage — he’s already ahead of John Carney by an 80.8 to 73.9 margin.
Yoon has added distance to his accuracy.
“There’s absolutely more power in that leg this year,” Polian said. “We couldn’t have stretched him out past 50, 51 last year. He missed a 55-yarder the other day, but he had three yards to spare. He just missed it a little wide right.
“I love where his mind is at right now. He’s so comfortable. He and I have developed a really good rapport. I love coaching him. He’s so much fun to be around.”
Doerer has an even stronger leg. He won’t get the opportunity to prove himself on field goals until Yoon leaves, but he’s solidified his spot as the top kickoff specialist. The 6-3, 200-pound sophomore added seven pounds in the offseason.
“What a year it was for him in the weight room,” Polian said. “He looks like a grown man. He was just a long, lanky baby when he got here. He’s over 200 pounds now. He has muscles. He doesn’t have the dad body any more. He has really worked at his craft.”
Yoon recorded more kickoffs than Doerer last season (52 to 32), but Doerer took over the role late last season. He performed 24 of the final 26 kickoffs in the last five games. He recorded a 61.2-yard average and notched nine touchbacks on the season.
“We’ve always known he had a powerful leg, but it was inconsistent,” Polian said. “It took him a little while to figure it out with the lights on. But I thought he really did a nice job in the last quarter of the season last year. That has translated. He’s three-stepping balls from the 35 down to the goal line. He’s going to be a weapon for us.”