Notebook: Nothing but net matters for Notre Dame punter Jay Bramblett
Jay Bramblett didn’t even punt enough last season to qualify for the NCAA’s official individual leaderboard of FBS punters.
His 3.58 punts per game fell just short of the 3.6 minimum required to be included in the NCAA’s ranking system. If rounding up were allowed, Bramblett would have been ranked No. 45, in a tie with Rice freshman Charlie Mendes, for averaging 42.8 yards per punt.
That number was a significant improvement for Bramblett after a freshman year averaging 39.4 yards per punt, but those numbers aren’t the ones that Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian is interested in tracking.
The bottom line is net punting — the length of the punt after the distance of the punt return has been subtracted from it. Bramblett and the Irish were much better in that category last season. After finishing the 2019 season ranked No. 81 in the FBS in net punting (37.7 yards per punt), Notre Dame leaped to No. 18 in 2020 with an average net of 41.28 yards.
“The only number that matters is net punting,” Polian said Tuesday following Notre Dame’s eighth spring practice.
The goal, Polian said, is to keep the net punting number over 40 yards. Only 30 teams in the FBS averaged more than 40 yards in net punting last season.
So while Bramblett’s individual punting average doesn’t quite match the distance of former Notre Dame punter Tyler Newsome, who averaged 44.7 yards per punt as a graduate senior in 2018, the Irish were much improved in net punting. The Irish finished 60th in net putting (37.74 yards) with Newsome in 2018.
“I do think Jay has some more pop in his leg than what we showed, but think back to the Rose Bowl,” Polian said. “He has one punt against (Alabama Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta) Smith where he forces a fair catch, it’s high hang time, it’s a tremendous kick.
“There was another one deep in the red zone where we out-punted the coverage and we gave up a 20-yard return because we’re out-kicking the guys getting down there trying to cover the ball.
“That is what we are constantly trying to manage, quite frankly, and the only number that matters to us is the net punt because in the end, that is the number that is signifying the transfer of field position.”
Notre Dame allowed only a net of 44 punt return yards all season — 27 of which came in the season opener against Duke and 20 of which came on the final punt of the season against Alabama in the previously mentioned College Football Playoff semifinal.
The stretch of 36 punts between those two moments netted a loss of three yards for opposing punt returners. Bramblett induced 15 fair catches and pinned opposing offenses inside their own 20-yard line 12 times. He punted into the end zone only once for a touchback.
“I’m definitely getting better every year,” said Bramblett, who will enter his junior season this fall. “That’s certainly the goal to keep ascending and keep doing my job. Fair catches and a really solid average is where I want to be. Make it as easy as possible for our defense and field position. Our cover team does a great job, and I definitely would not be able to do what I do without those guys.”
To return or not?
While Notre Dame limited opposing punt returns, the Irish weren’t lighting up opponents with punt returns of their own last year. With walk-on Matt Salerno tasked with punt returns for much of the season, the Irish finished ranked No. 42 nationally in punt return average at 9.14 yards.
That average was inflated by a couple blocked punts returned for touchdowns against South Florida and Pittsburgh. Salerno himself averaged 4.5 yards on 10 returns.
Polian understands that fans may want to see a more explosive returner back to catch punts like running back Chris Tyree, but he doesn’t want to sacrifice ball security.
“We recognize how good a football player Chris Tyree is, but in the end, the security of the football in the transition of it from our defense to our offense is the single most important factor,” Polian said. “If Chris is not yet comfortable, and there are times when he articulates to us, ‘I’m not quite there yet,’ I’m not going to roll him out there on national TV if he’s not comfortable yet.”
Polian said Tyree is continuing work at punt returns in competition with Salerno, senior wide receiver Lawrence Keys III, freshman wide receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. and freshman cornerback Philip Riley.
The opportunities for substantial punt returns have become increasingly rare over the past decade, Polian said, with the increased popularity of the shield punt formation. That leaves punt return teams with limited opportunities for game-breaking returns.
“What we preach to the team is you never know which one or two it’s going to be and we have to be working on all cylinders every snap,” Polian said. “So that when we do get a legit return opportunity, that we can take advantage of it. That’s the challenge for us. But the reality of it is the game has changed.”
Fair catches have become increasingly popular across the FBS too. According to ESPN Stats and Information, 13.5 percent of punts were fair caught in 2004. Through Nov. 1 of last season, 34.7 percent of punts nationally were fair caught in 2020.
Notre Dame fair caught 27 of the 60 punts (45 percent) from opponents last season. Alabama, which finished ninth in the FBS with a 14.95-yard average on punt returns, fair caught 23 of the 62 punts (37 percent) it faced.
Polian said it’s not fair to say that Notre Dame has become Fair Catch Central.
“If you don’t recognize that change,” Polian said, “and you’re just saying, ‘Boy, they used to return more punts than they do now,’ you have to recognize that the game has changed.”
The most perplexing aspect of Notre Dame’s special teams last season may have been the inaccuracy of kicker Jonathan Doerer in the latter half of the season.
Doerer made 12 of his first 15 field goal attempts, then missed five of his last eight. Doerer, who missed one field goal in each of the last five games, finished the season ranked No. 81 in the FBS for making only 65.2 percent of his field goal tries.
In 2019, Doerer made 85 percent of his field goals (13-of-17).
“There were some mechanical issues,” Polian said, “something that he couldn’t quite get comfortable with, and then it became a confidence thing. ‘Hey, I’m going to be super careful here and instead of getting up there and swinging at the ball, I’m just going to try and ease it through the uprights.’
“It’s frustrating to him and it’s frustrating to me that I couldn’t help him more at the end of the year, because you think back to the (first) Clemson game and we don’t win that game without Jon Doerer.”
Doerer made four field goals and five extra points in the 47-40, double-overtime victory over then-No. 1 Clemson. His only miss came on a 57-yard attempt at the end of the first half.
“We know he can do it on the biggest stage,” Polian said, “so we have to help him get back to making sure that we’re rock solid mechanically, so then the confidence comes with that.”
• Polian identified two kick returns last season that he felt like Tyree had a chance to break for a touchdowns last season. He wants to be able to let Tyree, who averaged 20.7 yards per return last season, roam free even more in 2021.
“That’s been something that we studied hard here in the offseason because we do feel like we have an electric return man,” Polian said. “If we go into a week and feel like we’re going to get legit opportunities, we want to take advantage of them.”
• The Irish lost two key special teams contributors in Jack Lamb (graduate transfer) and Brock Wright (NFL), but Polian said he’s fortunate to have a handful of key contributors back like linebackers Bo Bauer, Jack Kiser, Maris Liufau and Isaiah Pryor and safety Houston Griffith.
Polian wants to get more wide receivers and defensive backs involved too. He described safety Justin Walters and cornerback Philip Riley as fast risers on special teams this spring.