Trust, confidence finally materialized for Notre Dame kicker Jonathan Doerer against USC
SOUTH BEND — As Brock Wright returned to the sideline late Saturday night, Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian embraced the 6-foot-5, 246-pound tight end with a hug.
Polian was overwhelmed with emotion after watching Wright’s game-clinching onside kick recovery cap a standout performance from the Irish special teams. Place-kicker Jonathan Doerer notably received the game ball after connecting on 3-of-3 field goals in No. 9 Notre Dame’s 30-27 victory over USC (3-3) at Notre Dame Stadium.
All three of Doerer’s field goals (43, 45, 52) surpassed his previous career-long of 36 yards, made earlier this season against New Mexico. The junior’s 52-yarder in the fourth quarter ranks third in school history behind 53-yarders from Dave Reeve against Pittsburgh in 1976 and Kyle Brindza against Arizona State in 2013.
The Irish (5-1) were not certain Doerer would even be their starter this season until announcing him as such in mid-August. Doerer’s willingness to improve and receive coaching set the stage for this performance, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said.
“We saw the development because he chose to address it,” Kelly said. “Now, you can just say — you can blame it on a million things, and I’m not getting treated right or I’m not getting a fair shake, you’re too hard on me. That was not his mindset.
“His mindset is, ‘I’ve got to get better. I’m a better kicker than this. I’m going to find a way to make sure that I am repeating this, and I’m going to be the kind of kicker I think I should be.’ All the credit goes to him.”
Replacing all-time leading scorer Justin Yoon after last year was indeed a tall task. Doerer did not distinguish himself in his first two years as a kickoff specialist and second-team place-kicker. A fair share of sliced field goal attempts traveling wide left and right marred Doerer’s spring football campaign.
The Irish even invited competition, adding freshman walk-on kicker Harrison Leonard to the mix in June. Until preseason training camp, Doerer struggled to hone in on his leg strength and athleticism that helped earn him an Irish scholarship offer in the eleventh hour of their 2017 recruiting class.
“Poor analogy, but he could drive the golf ball 350 yards but he’d be in the trees half the time,” said Kelly on Doerer’s leg strength being stymied by inconsistency. “So it was about how do we get this young man to really hone in on this exceptional skill that he has.
“And you know, he’s done an incredible job of really building a repetition in his swing, his leg swing, that he is so confident now in what he does that he’s unflappable.
“He can go into any situation and he trusts what he is doing, and it’s like anything else. When you go on that first tee and you trust your swing, you feel like you can hit it not matter what the situation is. He’s in a similar kind of state now.”
A new approach from Polian to special teams as a whole may have contributed to Doerer’s progress as well. Polian wrapping his arms around Wright contrasts from his propensity to hurl fiery epithets.
“I think Brian has done an outstanding job, quite frankly,” Kelly said. “I think his approach has had a lot to do with it, and his approach has been one where he has garnered the support of the group in a manner that he’s a warm and fuzzy guy, and I would have never said that about Brian Polian.
“And the warm and fuzzy has been one that the guys enjoy coming to the meetings. They enjoy playing for him. They want to play for him.”
The Irish appeared to err on the side of caution with Doerer through their first five games. He attempted just one field goal beyond 36 yards during that span — a 47-yard miss against Virginia, which is his only miss of the season in seven tries. A handful of Notre Dame’s stalled drives inside its opponent’s 40-yard line prompted punts and fourth-down conversion attempts.
The Irish eased Doerer into his three kicks by starting with a lower-leverage situation. His first attempt came with a double-digit lead. A nine-play, 29-yard drive set up Doerer’s 45-yarder to bring Notre Dame a 17-3 advantage heading into halftime.
Doerer followed that kick with a 52-yarder on the opening drive of the second half.
“Kelly is building the confidence of Doerer in this game by giving him the opportunity to make long kicks like that,” Brindza wrote in a tweet. “He’s making the right decision both for this game and for games down the road.”
USC came within striking distance after totaling 426 yards and producing an uncharacteristically low amount of self-inflicted wounds (two penalties, no turnovers). Doerer’s final 43-yarder in the third quarter proved to be the difference.
The trust could be felt by his teammates.
“Jon’s good, man,” said running back Tony Jones Jr. “Jon knows how to kick that ball, I know that. Jon has a right approach. He does it all the time. It takes long, but when he does it, he’s going to hit everything. It doesn’t matter.”
Onside kick controversy
Kelly nearly prevented the Polian-Wright embrace from ever happening, inadvertently.
As USC kicker Chase McGrath made contact with the football on his onside kick with 1:04 left in the game and USC trailing by three, Kelly was still on the field instructing his players. He stood behind Wright and the Irish hands team nearly five yards away from the sideline— unaware the kick was about to take place.
Maybe Kelly’s weekly yoga sessions can be credited for his quick, stealth backtracking toward the sideline. A no-call on what could have been an interference penalty resulted in USC head coach Clay Helton chiding the officials.
“I went to them, because one of their coaches was actually on the field,” Helton said. “And actually all the way to the numbers. I asked if that was reviewable.
“I was going to call a timeout to review it going. ... Should have been a flag. No question. It got missed. I was asking to see if it was reviewable. But it was a non-reviewable call.”
• For the first time this season, Notre Dame used a starter for most spots on its opening kickoff coverage team: cornerback Troy Pride Jr., safeties Kyle Hamilton, Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman, linebackers Bo Bauer, Asmar Bilal and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, tight end Cole Kmet, wide receiver Chase Claypool, defensive end Jamir Jones and Doerer.
• Defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem represented the Irish as captains for the opening coin toss.
• Notre Dame’s 15 consecutive home wins is its third-longest streak in school history.
• Bilal’s 11 total tackles Saturday surpassed his previous career-high of nine.
• Tony Jones Jr. recorded his third straight game with at least 100 rushing yards.