Noie: Notre Dame kicker Justin Yoon eliminates any, all distractions to do job

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It was a sleepy, steamy Saturday morning in August inside Notre Dame Stadium, the ninth preseason practice for the No. 8 Irish. Still a ways out — three long weeks — from the season opener for anything to really matter.

But this moment mattered. To head coach Brian Kelly. To kicker Justin Yoon.

As the Irish prepared for Yoon to attempt a field goal pushing 50 yards, Kelly started yelling at the senior from Nashville, Tenn. He tried to shake Yoon from his focus. Maybe get him to pull the kick to the left. Or right. Or bang it off an upright. Kelly kept at it until the ball was snapped and placed and Yoon commenced doing what he does. Making kicks. Long kicks. Short kicks. Pressure kicks. Doesn’t matter. The ball usually ends up going where it should go.

Even a yelling Kelly didn’t rattle Yoon. It could have been anyone, in any stadium. Fans in the front row. Somebody on the opposing sideline. A guy somewhere on his couch watching on television. The moment mattered, but nothing else did then for Yoon. He made the field goal. He made it look easy. He then laughed later when asked if he’d heard his hollering head coach.

Not a word.

“As a field goal kicker, you can’t let anything else bother you,” Yoon said. “For me, I’m thinking about only what I need to do and my field goal job. Looking at the ball and always concentrating on to hit a clean ball.”

Kelly can go ahead and bark. Any fan as well. Yell at Yoon. Tell him he’s a bum. That the kick’s not going through the uprights and another three points aren’t going on the scoreboard. Until the football talks, Yoon’s not going to listen to anybody or anything. Just see the ball. Kick the ball.

Along the way, block out everyone. The head coach included. That’s OK, Kelly joked later. He’s a father of teenagers. He’s used to being ignored. Yoon stressed that it wasn’t personal. To do his job, he’s got to eliminate all distractions. Even if that includes the head coach.

“There are guys who can do it and guys who can’t; I guess I’m lucky enough to be one of those guys to be able to do that,” Yoon said. “It wasn’t in my nature to disregard his comment but in my sense, I was just trying to make sure I make it between the pipes.”

A whole lot of Yoon’s kicks do exactly that. Some may be straighter than others, or bend to the left or slide to the right given the field and weather conditions, but more often than not, when Yoon’s been required to do his job over the last four years, he’s done it. At a record-setting pace.

Heading into Saturday’s home game against Ball State, Yoon remains on track to finish his collegiate career as the all-time leading scorer in program history. His six points last week against Michigan — three extra points and a 48-yard field goal — give him 281 for his career. That ranks fifth behind tailback Allen Pinkett (320), kicker Craig Hentrich (294) and kicker Kyle Brindza (288). Current Irish running backs coach Autry Denson, the school’s all-time leading rusher, ranks fourth on the all-time scoring list. Yoon will kick past him Saturday. Denson has 282 career points.

Yoon has averaged 91.6 points in his first three seasons.

For someone who’s not aware of anything or anybody when it’s time to kick, Yoon did admit that he knows he’s gaining ground on the scoring record.

“I’ve been hearing that here and there,” he said. “That’s an honor. That’s a true honor. That’s great and all, but it’s all about if we can do well this season and hopefully get a national championship. That would be huge for me.”

A routine thing

The process has long stayed the same for the 5-foot-10, 198-pound Yoon, whether he’s heading out on fourth down for a field goal or he’s ignoring the hype and happiness of a touchdown to lock in for an extra point.

Find his spot on the field. Then tell his holder, now backup quarterback Ian Book, the same thing — nothing changes. Walk backward three steps. Then two sideways steps to the left. Keep your head down, wait for the snap and go. Make sure the plant foot is solid. Swing the right.

“My key takeaway is making sure I focus on hitting the sweet spot of the football,” he said. “If you can’t do that, no matter how good a kicker you are, you’re not going to hit a good ball.”

More often than not, it’s a good ball. Another PAT. Another three points. Yoon has converted 152 of a possible 155 extra points during his four years. He went 55-for-55 last year. He’s made 81.13 percent of his field goals. He’s 15 shy of breaking Brindza’s career record for field goals. He started his senior season ranked in the top 10 of 15 different school categories. He already owns four records.

“You’ve gotta trust yourself,” Yoon said. “That’s the biggest thing.”

Yoon did exactly that in Orlando, Fla., on New Year’s Day. Ask anyone their biggest takeaway from the Citrus Bowl win over LSU and the response likely centers on the catch and touchdown run by wide receiver Miles Boykin with 88 seconds remaining. Rightfully so. A play for the ages, sure, but it also followed a pretty clutch field goal.

Notre Dame might not have been in that go-and-win-the-game position had it not been for Yoon’s delivery late in the third quarter. He kicked a 49-yard field goal in conditions that were later described as “miserable” — 53 degrees, winds at 17 mph, intermittent rain — to bring the Irish within a point, 7-6. Notre Dame’s first points that day came on a 46-yard Yoon field goal with four seconds left in the first half. The Irish needed something positive to take into the locker room. Yoon gave it to them.

Talk about the Book to Boykin pass all you want, Kelly said last month, but don’t forget Yoon’s field goals. Those were just as big.

“Our guy made two 45-plus yarders that kept us in the game,” said special teams coach Brian Polian. “When the head coach says it in front of the team, it’s a really big deal.”

So much so that when the program held a specialists’ camp over the summer, Polian made it a point to put Yoon’s two kicks on the film. Even in bad conditions, Yoon was good. Polian felt like he had to play those kicks for all to see, and for all to applaud, because Yoon certainly won’t do it himself.

Too humble. Too critical of every kick. Too driven to be perfect when sometimes perfection isn’t possible. Yoon could drill a 50-plus yarder like he did in the stadium last month and still find something at fault with his approach. His left plant foot. His follow through. Something that drives him to do it again. Do it better.

Do the Irish know how good they’ve had it the last four years with Yoon? Does Yoon know how good he can be? This year? The next four or five at the next level?

No and no.

“I love that about him,” Polian said. “That desire to seek perfection is what makes him really good. We never attain it, but along the way, we can find excellence. That’s what Justin has done.

“He’s got no ego whatsoever.”

Even when it comes to craving a game-winning kick. In the closing seconds. Of a close game. In tough conditions. Man, that would be great, Yoon offers, but you know what? He doesn’t allow himself to go there. Ever. To him, he’d treat it like it was just another kick during August camp. Or indoors in April during spring practice.

“Yeah, I’ll get a little bit more nervous and get an adrenaline rush into me, but every kick should be the same if you want to make it,” Yoon said. “That’s just how it should be.”

Really, how it’s been with Yoon.

Notre Dame senior kicker Justin Yoon scored six points and did what he does — make kicks — in the season-opening victory over Michigan.