Punt block party keeps raging for Notre Dame: 'They're hungry for it'

Mike Berardino
South Bend Tribune

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Brian Mason’s Punt Block Party has a road-show version as well.

When Clarence Lewis smothered backup punter James Williams midway through the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 41-24 win over No. 16 Syracuse, it marked Notre Dame’s fifth blocked punt of the season but its first away from Notre Dame Stadium.

The others came against Marshall (Bo Bauer), Stanford (Prince Kollie) and UNLV (two credited to Isaiah Foskey). The Irish have a streak of three straight games with a blocked punt under Mason, their first-year special teams coordinator and a Zionsville High School product.

“Kudos to coach Mason and that punt block unit,” Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman said.  “They’re hungry for it. You can see it. Once you start getting a little bit of success and block a couple punts, they want it. They want to attack it and they work on it after practice and really work at the details of it.”

With four regular-season games remaining, Notre Dame already owns the modern program record for blocked punts in a season. The previous mark was four: 2000 under Bob Davie, the 1949 national championship team of Frank Leahy and 1938 under Elmer Layden.

The modern era of Notre Dame football record-keeping started in 1937, but Heartley “Hunk” Anderson’s 1932 and 1933 teams each blocked seven punts while playing nine-game schedules.

Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Mason speaks during the media availability Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

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Freeman hired Mason, a former running back at Division III Denison University, in January after working with him for a combined seven seasons at Kent State, Purdue and Cincinnati.

“You’ve got to spend time trying to attack the deficiencies of the opponent and also make sure you’re not putting yourself at a risk (of) getting a fake,” Freeman said. “That’s the big challenge: At some point somebody’s going to try to fake on us, and we have to make sure we’re ready for it. I think our guys are.”

Deion Colzie fits the mold

Notre Dame wide receiver Deion Colzie (16) makes a catch in front of Syracuse defensive back Isaiah Johnson (20) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

Senior speedster Braden Lenzy missed practice time due to illness, so the Irish went with younger, taller wide receivers against Syracuse cornerbacks with similar physical profiles.

“We had a couple personnel (groupings) where we went ‘tall guys,’ “ Freeman said. “We called it ‘Tall Personnel.’ The ability to get some of that length (was helpful) because they have some long corners and we wanted to be able to challenge those guys.”  

While Lorenzo Styles led the group with 43 offensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, Jayden Thomas (37), Deion Colzie (30), Matt Salerno (21) and Tobias Merriweather (19) got more chances than usual. Lenzy was on the field for just four offensive snaps but made a tackle in punt coverage.

Colzie, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who came in with four career receptions (all in 2021), produced 44 receiving yards on three catches, including a juggling 11-yard grab to convert a third-and-7 situation with about 10 minutes left and the Irish clinging to a seven-point lead.

Colzie was targeted just three times but still tied Michael Mayer for the most catches on a day when the passing game struggled. Colzie, who suffered a PCL sprain in his left knee during training camp, had contributed on special teams but was limited to a high of 10 offensive snaps before Saturday.  

“I’m proud of him because it’s a reflection of practice,” Freeman said. “I keep saying you build confidence in practice. He had a great week of practice. For him to go out and have a couple catches and make some plays and get a little more playing time, it reinforces the things I say. Practice is so important.”

Audric Estime back in business

Benched against UNLV after fumbling for the third time in a month, Audric Estime made the most of his second chance.

Lined up at fullback to start Saturday’s game, the 228-pound sophomore barreled straight ahead for gains of 5 and 4 yards on the first two offensive snaps. Estime finished with 123 yards on 20 carries, including two more touchdowns to push his team-leading total to eight.

“I think that helped for sure,” Estime said. “To get the first carries just means a lot to me, shows the trust coach (Tommy) Rees and coach Freeman and coach Deland (McCullough) have in me. That was a big confidence booster.”

Roommate Logan Diggs matched Estime in total carries (20) while rushing for 85 yards and his first rushing score of the season.

Playing about a 3 ½-hour drive from his hometown of Nyack, N.Y., Estime shook his head when asked if he’d had to make any mechanical adjustments in the interest of ball security.

“No big changes,” Estime said. “Honestly, just be more mindful of it. The game of football is named after what I held in my hand. Literally, it could come out (at) any time. I just had to keep it on (my) mind: No matter what, the ball comes first.”

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.