Noie: Notre Dame graduate kicker Jonathan Doerer in a good space

Tom Noie
ND Insider

Another day on the Notre Dame campus for kicker Jonathan Doerer feels like one of his good field goal attempts. 

True. Down the middle perfect. Normal. Something so routine that it’s sometimes taken for granted. 

A year ago at this time, life for Doerer was far from routine. Or down the middle. Thanks to the global pandemic protocols, Doerer’s campus life – the first time he’d lived away from the dorms after three years – was limited to a handful of places and spaces.

He’d go from his off-campus residence to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex for football meetings and team functions. He'd hustle across Courtney Lane to the Irish Athletic Center for football practice. He’d slide to the adjacent practice fields for individual work. At the end of another day, he’d grab a to-go meal and go home, where he’d tend to any classwork through Zoom. It was all very strange. Different.

Figuring out which direction the wind is blowing inside Notre Dame Stadium is often a futile exercise for Irish graduate kicker Jonathan Doerer.

There were no walks past Notre Dame Stadium on the way to a class. No group meetings at Hesburgh Library. No lunches at South Dining Hall. No just hanging out and being a college kid with the rest of the college kids. 

Outside of his teammates, Doerer had little interaction with anybody else. Not his friends. Not his professors. Not anybody. That was a challenge once the same four walls started closing in. It really got rough post-finals when the rest of the students went home and it was basically Doerer and his teammates around campus. Or, what passed for being on campus. 

“That was hard, especially when it got cold outside and you couldn’t do anything,” Doerer said last month after a recent practice. “I just tried to hang out with the guys, keep it as fresh as you can. Make the best of a tough situation for everybody.” 

Doerer was able to secure some semblance of a routine, but even that got a little stale. He liked being around his teammates and embraced the camaraderie a football team provides, but at some point, he'd had enough.

“I love my team, but you see those guys for a month on end with nobody else (around), it’s just tough,” he said. “We couldn’t do anything about that. We had a good year and made the best of it.” 

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That good year resulted in a 10-2 season and second trip in three seasons to the College Football Playoff. Along the way,  Doerer already had started entertaining thoughts about returning for a fifth year, an opportunity made available because of the pandemic. Ask an Irish football player in the dog days of October what his plans for the following football season might be – if he’s one with the chance to return like Doerer – and you get the standard non-answer.

Not thinking about that right now. Just want to finish the season. Will turn attention to that at a later date. 

Then there was Doerer. Asked in early October about his thoughts about the chance of returning for a graduate year in 2021 when 2020 was still in progress, Doerer already was all in. Heck yeah, he’d thought about coming back, he admitted. If it all worked out, he’d absolutely be back. Another year of playing college football with a sociology degree secured while pursuing a Masters? Where could Doerer sign up? 

It was as easy a decision as an extra point, something Doerer has done without fail for 110 consecutive kicks dating back to 2018. 

“I wasn’t ready to start my life,” he said. “I enjoy being here. To have the opportunity to get (a Masters) while I play football at Notre Dame was something that meant a lot to me.” 

Returning for a fifth year was a no-brainer for Notre Dame kicker Jonathan Doerer.

A long year 

The struggles that Doerer dealt with because of the pandemic last season eventually leaked into his job. Long considered nearly automatic, Doerer labored over the back half of 2020. He missed on five of his last nine field goals. He was wide left. Wide right. Too short. Everything a kicker can’t be. Was it a crisis of confidence? Maybe Doerer overthought his approach and his assignment, but it wasn’t just that. 

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He just wore down. It had been a long year, academically and athletically. The 2020 team had all of one spring practice before the pandemic hit and everyone was sent home. For Doerer those were difficult days, mainly because he didn’t have the structure that he’d long had back on campus. The scheduled workouts. The routines. The times when he could go inside the IAC or out to a practice field and work on his right leg and his game. 

For the rest of spring 2020 until June, Doerer was on his own home in Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s where the struggles surfaced. Not in a bad way. Doerer didn’t go home and chuck all his workouts figuring he’d pick up where he left off when everything returned to normal. 

When it came to kicking and lifting and working out, Doerer did the opposite. He overworked. 

“Last year, I think I got myself in trouble,” he said. “I kicked too much because there was nothing to do.” 

Doerer missed being around the weight room and around the guys the way he normally would in the spring and early summer. 

“That,” said associate head coach/special teams coordinator Brian Polian,” was a big deal.” 

Doerer returned to campus feeling fine, but as summer became fall and winter neared, he noticed something about his 6-foot-3, 197-pound frame that he’d never before noticed. He felt differently. Especially as November arrived and the grind of being in a bubble for what turned out to be eight months resonated. 

“As the season wore on, I got weaker and got a little more burned out than normal,” he said. “I wasn’t as fresh in my mind, especially with the lack of college (summer) experience last year. It felt like there was a lot more football than I had experienced my four years prior.” 

His kickoffs landed shorter than usual. He would second-guess himself on field goals that weren’t straight and true and good. He wondered why he’d worked so hard in spring and summer. He thought it would help. It did the opposite. 

“That’s when general burnout came into play,” he said. “That happens. Something I have to learn from.” 

Doerer learned from it. Able to jump back into his spring, summer and preseason routine, Doerer believes he’s coming clear of the most consistent preseason camp of his career. He hit from 52 yards in one practice, and nailed one from 54 in the other. His leg feels fresh. His mind feels clear. The challenge is to carry that through the season, which for Doerer and No. 9 Notre Dame starts Sunday at Florida State. 

“Jon’s had a very good training camp,” Polian said. “His leg, he has pop. I need him to get that confidence back.” 

Doerer’s head – and his leg – are in a good place. These days, another day on campus feels like just another day for Doerer. Everything fits. Everything feels right. To a point. There have been times the last few weeks where Doerer takes a moment to let it all sink in. He never planned on being here for a fifth year, but here he is. Here it is. 

Doerer is eager for his final year, but part of him feels like an outsider. There are times when he’ll pass by the stadium, and dream about what it might be like to make his first game-winning kick since high school come a fall Saturday. Other times, the graduate student wonders what some of the guys in his recruiting class (Aaron Banks, Robert Hainsey, Cole Kmet) are doing these days. 

“It’s been interesting seeing my friends get jobs and start their lives and I’m still here,” he said. “Drew White commented the other day, ‘Man, this is weird. I feel like I should be doing something (else).’ I was like, ‘I feel you bro. It is strange being the oldest guy here.’” 

Strange at times, but at others, everything feels right. Like, it was meant to work out this way for Doerer. He originally planned to go to school and kick at Maryland. But Notre Dame has become his home.

“I’m glad I came back,” Doerer said. “It’s given me so much but there’s still so much to give.” 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI