Notebook: Why Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian is less stressed this year
SOUTH BEND — Preseason training camp hasn’t quite ended for Brian Polian. Even though most of Notre Dame’s coaching staff has shifted its football practice focus to preparing for the season opener at Florida State, the special teams coordinator needs more time before his units make that transition.
Polian only gets 25 minutes per practice to work with the special teams units outside of the work he does with the kickers, punters and long snappers. So it’s only natural that it’s taking a bit longer to work out the training camp kinks.
That process has been made easier by the number of players who have special teams experience returning this season. Outside of returning starters at place-kicker (Jonathan Doerer), long snapper (Michael Vinson) and punter and holder (Jay Bramblett for both), Polian has a handful of players who have contributed on punt returns, kick returns, punt coverage and kickoff coverage.
That list includes linebackers Bo Bauer, Marist Liufau, Jack Kiser, JD Bertrand, Isaiah Pryor and Shayne Simon. Polian can’t remember having such a deep core group of special teams players returning.
“These are guys that have started on three or four units that are all returning,” Polian said. “My stress level’s always high, but it has not been as high, because I put the first punt team out there this training camp, and I look at everybody in the front, and they all started last year.”
Even as those players have expanded their roles on Notre Dame’s defense, their buy-in to contribute on special teams remains. Gone are the days when Polian had to rely on countless walk-on players to fill out his special teams lineups. When Polian, who also coached for the Irish from 2005-09, returned to Notre Dame in 2017, the choice to play so many walk-ons was influenced by how much effort those players were willing to give to special teams work.
That commitment has expanded to the top of the roster in recent years. Polian let the team know how much NFL scouts valued the special teams experience that wide receiver Chase Claypool gained during his Notre Dame career. Polian pointed to the NFL careers former Irish players Sergio Brown and David Bruton were able to maintain due to their special teams play.
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“I firmly believe this: our job first and foremost is to help our team win,” Polian said. “My second job is to help them and show them how to increase their value if they want to play beyond Notre Dame. That message is getting across. Guys recognize it.”
The roster buy-in exists to the extent where even junior safety Kyle Hamilton, a likely first-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft, wants to contribute to special teams.
“There are units that can win or lose games. He's going to be involved in those units,” Polian said. “We're certainly not going to roll him out there where we don't need him, but you will see him in some spots covering kicks.”
Polian has started to identify young players who could help on various special teams units like safety Justin Walters, cornerback Philip Riley and wide receivers Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Xavier Watts. They’ll be ready when needed.
“There are guys that we're going to get ready,” Polian said, “but fortunately we're in a year right now where I'm not totally panicked about ‘Oh my God, I have to get this young guy ready to go’ or we're going to have to limit what we do early on because we have young people out there.”
Getting a better feel for field goals
The Jonathan Doerer that finished last season missing five of his last eight field goal attempts wasn’t the same Doerer that Notre Dame had counted on in the 2019 season and early in 2020.
Doerer wore down in more ways than one in the midst of all the COVID-19 precautions required to play college football last season. Doerer said he burned out from kicking too much on his own.
“I underestimated the mental and emotional and sometimes physical toll of what we went through,” Polian said. “We kept them in a bubble from June until January. I underestimated the impact that was going to have. I kind of felt like, ‘Ah, they’re 22. They're resilient. They'll be fine.’
“And it wore guys out. Jon was an example both physically and I think mentally and emotionally.”
That explanation hasn’t prevented Polian and Doerer from working to correct the mistakes that were made in those missed field goals. His past performance, which included making 24 of his 31 field goals from the start of the 2019 season through the first seven games of last season, showed Doerer could handle the pressure.
“I need him to get that confidence back,” Polian said. “He's had a good camp.”
So too has freshman kicker Josh Bryan. Early in Tuesday’s practice, Bryan hit four of his five attempts by making an extra point and kicks of 41, 46 and 52 yards. His miss from 33 yards sailed left. Doerer attempted the same kicks before Bryan and missed to the right from 33 and 46 yards out.
“Josh Bryan is everything we thought he was going to be,” Polian said. “He's had an exceptional camp. I am very pleased about Josh, and I'm really excited about his future.”
Doerer does have the stronger leg though. Bryan’s 52-yard make bounced through the goalposts off the crossbar. Doerer, who hit a 54-yard field goal earlier in camp, had plenty of leg on his 52-yard make and hit the net about halfway to the top.
Breaking Chris Tyree loose on kick returns
Polian said in April that he identified two kick returns last year that Tyree had a chance to break for touchdowns if the return was executed perfectly. With so many moving pieces flying down the field, those opportunities can disappear quickly.
Especially when those opportunities are so limited. Tyree returned only 22 kickoffs in 12 games last season with an average of 20.7 yards per return.
That’s why someone with Tyree’s speed gives the Irish more chances than others could. In addition to being the fastest player on the team, Tyree accelerates faster in his sprint earlier than others.
“Chris has elite change of direction,” Polian said. “He has elite feet. He will see it better this year. He makes people miss. He runs through arm tackles. He's the best option back there.”
The responsibility to produce big plays on kick returns doesn’t fall on Tyree alone.
“Chris is just one of 11. It starts with me,” Polian said. “Actually, I have to do better job. But in everything that we do, we are in a relentless pursuit of better right now. That's kind of been our mantra here through camp.”
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.