Special teams breakdown: Experience returns, but will it be explosive, more consistent?

Tyler James
ND Insider
Notre Dame's Jonathan Doerer (39) lines up an extra point kick against Alabama in the College Football Playoff Rose Bowl game  Jan. 1, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. Doerer's field goal make percentage slipped last season.

Jonathan Doerer’s return for a fifth season will be a disappointment if the kicker can’t rediscover his old self. Doerer became significantly less reliable last season when he missed a field goal in each of the last five games and dropped his field goal make percentage to 65.2. He was much better in 2019 when he made 85 percent of his field goals attempts.

Special teams coordinator Brian Polian will need to make sure Doerer gets back on track with his mechanics and confidence. Doerer’s performance in the November victory over Clemson — four made field goals and one miss from 57 yards — was evidence of his potential. The Irish don’t win that game without him. Strangely, Doerer’s accuracy dropped off following that game. 

Jay Bramblett punts during the Blue-Gold Game May 1, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. The Irish ranked 18th in net punting in 2020.

The punting game should remain in a favorable condition with junior Jay Bramblett entering his third season as the starter. Bramblett’s punt average isn’t special (42.8 yards), but the secret of his success is in net punting. The Irish finished No. 18 in the FBS in net punting (37.7 yards per punt) thanks to Bramblett’s hang time and the help of the coverage unit. 

Punt returner Matt Salerno and kick returner Chris Tyree are both available to continue their special teams roles, but neither provided many sparks last season. Salerno averaged 4.5 yards on 10 punt returns. Tyree averaged 20.7 yards on 22 kick returns.

SPECIAL TEAMS DEPTH CHART

Place-kicker/Kickoffs

39 | Jonathan Doerer | 6-3, 197 | Gr.

98 | Harrison Leonard | 5-11, 196 | Jr.  

91 | Josh Bryan | 6-0, 185 | Fr.  

Punter  

19 | Jay Bramblett | 6-2, 193 | Jr.  

Holder

19 | Jay Bramblett | 6-2, 193 | Jr.  

Long Snapper  

65 | Michael Vinson | 6-2, 226 | Sr.

44 | Alex Peitsch | 6-1, 208 | So.

Punt Returns

29 | Matt Salerno | 6-1, 196 | Sr.

13 | Lawrence Keys III | 5-10, 173 | Sr.

25 | Chris Tyree | 5-10, 188 | So.  

21 | Lorenzo Styles Jr. | 6-1, 186 | Fr.

Kick Returns

25 | Chris Tyree | 5-10, 188 | So.  

13 | Lawrence Keys III | 5-10, 173 | Sr.  

0 | Braden Lenzy | 5-11, 181 | Sr.

21 | Lorenzo Styles Jr. | 6-1, 186 | Fr.

Unfinished Business

Fair catches are more prevalent across college football, not just at Notre Dame. The risk/reward equation has changed for punt returns, but that doesn’t mean the Irish have to surrender the threat of being explosive. Maybe Salerno has that in his arsenal. If he doesn’t, Polian needs to find other options who are comfortable and capable of securing the return and then making something happen.

Matt Salerno (32) is expected to return punts for the Irish again in 2021.

The concern isn’t the same on kick returns. There’s no doubt that Tyree has the explosiveness required to be successful in the role, but his return average was quite average. Does he need better blocking or field vision? Or is he trying to return too many kickoffs that should be fair caught? Given he was just a freshman last season, he should be given the benefit of time to improve. 

Notre Dame hopes that Chris Tyree (25) can provided more explosiveness on kickoff returns in 2021.

Wild Card

Freshman Lorenzo Styles Jr. should receive consideration for both returner roles. He thrived as a returner at Pickerington (Ohio) Central with four return touchdowns (three punt, one kick) as a senior. Styles is a big play waiting to happen, so give him a chance to show that early and often.