Notebook: Brian Kelly lauds special effort from Notre Dame's special teams

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly restructured his practices this season to allow for more time to work on special teams, in the hopes they’d become, well, special.

Saturday against Vanderbilt at least, that investment came to fruition.

“I thought it would, because we've been spending so much time on it,” the Irish head coach said after No. 8 Notre Dame held off Vanderbilt, 22-17, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

• Sophomore Michael Young became the third different pairing in as many games for the Irish (3-0) with junior Tony Jones Jr., deep on kickoff returns. Young returned one for 48 yards in the fourth quarter.

• Senior place-kicker Justin Yoon moved past Kyle Brindza (2012-14) and Craig Hentrich (1989-92) for second place on the all-time Notre Dame points scored list with three field goals and an extra point Saturday. He did miss a 32-yarder, though.

The Nashville, Tenn., product, with 297 career points, now trails only running back Allen Pinkett (1982-85) on the all-time scoring list, with 320.

• And grad senior captain Tyler Newsome set a new school standard for punting in a game (minimum of five punts) at 59.6 yards per punt. A 63-yarder late in the fourth quarter pushed Vanderbilt back to its 10-yard line to start its final drive with five seconds left.

“Look, you’ve seen us early on in three games,” Kelly said. “We're not going to beat you, 52-3. We're going to grind it out. We're going to play tough, hard-nosed, blue- collar football, and we're going to need our special teams to be really good.

“I’d like to say I know that we're going to play better and have a better identity on offense, because we can do some really good things, but our special teams are going to have to be there for us.”

History lesson

Notre Dame has started the season with a defensive rarity — three straight games out of the gate in which the Irish defense has held the opposition to 17 points or fewer.

Since the most recent ND national championship team (1988) did the same during its title run, only three Irish teams have matched that start: the current squad, the 2012 team (12-1) that eventually played for a national championship, and the 2014 Irish (8-5).

That ND team went five games deep allowing 17 or fewer points until North Carolina put up a 43 spot in game 6 — in a 50-43 Irish escape. Notre Dame lost some key players and its mojo down the stretch, and yielded 31, 39, 55, 43, 31, 49 and 28 points in the remaining games that season.

In his 2018 defense, led by Vanderbilt graduate and first-year coordinator Clark Lea, Kelly sees a good unit that could become great.

“Being assignment-correct,” offered Kelly of one of the aspects that needs to improve to reach that level. “A couple of times we didn't blitz a safety and we leave the tight end uncovered. We lose eyes on a couple plays here and there.

“We're in the end zone, and we intercept the ball and we pull it out on the 1-yard line. Just these little things that can bump you from good to really good, to really doing some amazing things.

“So we're three games into it, and I think we're doing some good things. But there is really room for improvement. Not from the effort standpoint, but from a technical and tactical standpoint. I think we can get better.”

Catching on

The notion that running back Tony Jones Jr. could be a capable target in the passing game showed up quite a bit in preseason practices the past two Augusts but had been more rumor than reality in actual games.

In an injury-pocked 2017 season, Jones amassed a grand total of 12 receving yards, on six catches. In ND’s first two games this season, he had zero catches. But Saturday against Vanderbilt, Jones has a team-high 56 receiving yards on two catches, to go along with his career-high 118 yards rushing on 17 carries.

When asked what made the difference Saturday in the passing, Jones smiled.

“I tell (QB Brandon Wimbush) before the play, ‘B look.’ ” he said. “Something like that.”

By the numbers

• Notre Dame scored on its opening possession for the third straight game and has outscored its opponents by a combined 31-3 in the first quarter.

• The Irish broke Vanderbilt’s seven-game non-conference winning streak Saturday, which dated back to a 2016 loss to Georgia Tech (38-7).

• Brian Kelly improved his record against SEC opponents to 3-2 while at Notre Dame.

• The Irish are 12-7 at home against SEC teams all-time, including 2-0 vs. Vanderbilt.

• Freshman wide receiver Kevin Austin recorded his first career catch, a four-yarder.

• Freshman Houston Griffith had four tackles Saturday in his first extensive action at the nickel position.

Squibs

• The New York Jets and the Chicago Bears were the two NFL teams that sent scouts to the game.

• Reps from the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl were also in attendance.

Notre Dame’s Michael Young (87) is brought down by Vanderbilt’s Gil Barksdale (38) during a kickoff return in ND’s 22-17 win Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.