Reports: Special teams coach Brian Mason latest to be plucked from Notre Dame's staff

Mike Berardino
South Bend Tribune
Nov 5, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish special teams coordinator Brian Mason watches in the first quarter against the Clemson Tigers at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

SOUTH BEND — In his one year as Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator, Brian Mason always seemed to master the element of surprise.

Saturday’s bold stroke was a doozy.

According to multiple reports, Mason, 36, is expected to leave for the same role with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts and first-year head coach Shane Steichen. The move represents a homecoming for Mason, a Zionsville native, along with wife Rachel and their two young sons.

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A former running back at Division III Denison, the high-energy Mason worked previously with Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman as a graduate assistant at Kent State (2012) and Purdue (2013-14) and later as a full assistant Cincinnati (2017-20). Mason also spent two seasons (2015-16) as a graduate assistant at Ohio State with Urban Meyer.

Mason was a 2022 semifinalist for the Frank Broyles Award, which goes to the nation’s top FBS assistant coach in college football. Mason and South Carolina’s Pete Lembo were the only special teams coaches among the 50-plus semifinalists.

"We’re trying to create some chaos in the game and be aggressive," Mason said in December. "We always want to be the No. 1 special teams unit in the country."

Notre Dame set a modern school record for blocked punts in a season with seven, including five straight games with at least one blocked punt. Starting with the Stanford loss in mid-October and running through the narrow escape against Navy on Nov. 12, Mason’s rebranded “punt block” unit managed to wreak havoc at least once every time out.

Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Mason during the Notre Dame vs. Clemson NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

In the home win over UNLV on Oct. 22, consensus All-American defensive end Isaiah Foskey was credited with blocked punts on consecutive attempts in the first quarter.

Tied at 31 early in the fourth quarter in the Gator Bowl against South Carolina, Notre Dame used a fake punt to seize the momentum. Speedy gunner Braden Lenzy went in motion and gained 20 yards around right end on a fourth-and-4 jet sweep from the Irish 33.  

Three plays later, Logan Diggs scored on a 39-yard touchdown run that sent the Irish to an eventual 45-38 win.

“We’ve been practicing that fake all year long,” Freeman said after the Dec. 30 comeback win. “I knew going into the game, if the opportunity presented itself, I wanted to run it. It was beautifully executed.”

The last time Freeman and Mason were on a bowl sideline together, Cincinnati ran a fake punt against Georgia in the 2021 Peach Bowl.

“You always want to try to find an advantage and create chaos on some of those things,” Mason said on Dec. 11. “We’ve always got something that’s ready to go. If the opportunity is there, we’d certainly love to be able to change the game with that.”

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Mason’s departure marks the fourth for Notre Dame’s coaching staff since late January.

Defensive graduate assistant James Laurinaitis returned to Ohio State, where he was a three-time All-America linebacker; offensive coordinator Tommy Rees left for Alabama on Feb. 3; and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand announced his retirement on Feb. 12.

The Colts lost special teams coordinator Raymond "Bubba" Ventrone to the Cleveland Browns on Feb. 22. Ventrone was among 13 candidates the Colts recently interviewed for their head coaching position after his special teams ranked fifth or better in four of the past five seasons, according to Pro Football Focus' efficiency grades.

Mason-coordinated special teams at Notre Dame (2022) and Cincinnati (2021) ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, according to Pro Football Focus. The Irish tied Central Michigan for the FBS lead last season with seven combined blocked kicks/punts; the 2021 Bearcats tied Old Dominion for the national lead with six combined blocks.

Foskey, a prospective first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, was asked about Mason on Wednesday while meeting with reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine.

“I like coach Mason a lot,” Foskey said. "He helped me a lot with blocking the punts. It’s not called ‘punt return.’ It’s called ‘punt block.’ That’s basically what we were doing all season: blocking punts.”

Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey (94) celebrates a blocked punt during the ND's 45-24 romp at Stanford on Nov. 30,

At 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds, Foskey was a unique chess piece for Mason, but Notre Dame's inventive schemes also helped linebackers Bo Bauer (Marshall), Prince Kollie (Stanford) and Jack Kiser (Navy), defensive end Jordan Botelho (Clemson) and cornerback Clarence Lewis (Syracuse) pop free to block punts.

“Imagine blocking a punt in the NFL,” Foskey said. “That’s a tremendous change in momentum right there.”

Before Halloween, Notre Dame had already eclipsed the previous modern program record for blocked punts in a season (four), which had been shared by three Irish editions: 2000 under Bob Davie, the 1949 national champions of Frank Leahy and 1938 under Elmer Layden.  

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

“Kudos to coach Mason and that punt block unit,” Freeman said after the win at Syracuse on Oct. 29. “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.”

Before Mason arrived, Notre Dame had blocked just six punts over the previous 10 seasons.

Notre Dame’s special teams ranked No. 6 among 131 FBS teams in the FEI Efficiency Rankings, which measures net field position gained in all phases. Over the previous 15 years, Notre Dame had finished in the top 15 in FEI just once.

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