'Hey, we're here,' is a special teams identity Marty Biagi gladly inherits at Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s “punt block” unit has been rebranded.
“We call it SWAT,” new special teams coordinator Marty Biagi said Saturday.
That’s not to say Biagi, hired away from Mississippi on March 18 after the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts grabbed Zionsville’s Brian Mason two weeks earlier, isn’t interested in causing havoc when the other team punts. It’s just that after the Irish set a modern school record with seven blocked punts, including at least one in five straight games, the word is out.
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“You love that there’s an identity created,” Biagi said. “I’d rather have an identity created than not. It just helps us hopefully create an energy when you take the field of, ‘Hey, we’re here.’ “
All-America defensive end Isaiah Foskey and fellow team captain Bo Bauer are prepping for the NFL, but four others credited with blocked punts last fall — Prince Kollie, Jack Kiser, Jordan Botelho and Clarence Lewis — are back for spring practice with the Irish.
“Continuity is great,” said Biagi, who still has special teams assistant Jesse Schmitt on staff.
Kollie, a junior linebacker, ignited the Clemson upset with a touchdown return of the punt Botelho blocked.
“Shout out to Coach Mason,” Kollie said March 29. “He’s a guru. He’s really high on my list because he watches film, dissects film. I’ve never seen anything like it, the schemes he would come up with. We blocked seven punts last year. It’s unheard of. I’m sure Coach Biagi is the same way.”
Biagi, a 2016 Notre Dame special teams analyst who ran his own crews at North Texas and Purdue, won’t have to sell any current players on signing up for special teams.
“He’s come in and he’s been kind of fortunate because we’re all ready to go,” Kollie said. “We’re amped for ST. We’re all fully invested in special teams. He’s going to enhance what he can and fix us where he can, so he’s doing a really good job so far.”
'Open line of communication'
According to Biagi’s research, the top-rated special teams typically average five to eight starting-caliber players as regular contributors.
While that hasn’t necessarily been the case at each of his stops, Biagi appreciates having Marcus Freeman’s support to load up the core-four units with as many playmakers as possible.
“I love the head coach here,” Biagi said. “The open line of communication has been awesome.”
Even having an idea quickly shot down, Biagi said, is better than being strung along by “a false promise where you’re banking on a kid and then, the week of the game: ‘Ah, we can’t use him.’ “
And while Freeman openly fretted last year about Mason’s all-out schemes leaving Notre Dame susceptible to a fake — something the Irish saw both sides of in the Gator Bowl win over South Carolina — Biagi believes the freedom to fail remains.
“From a head coach standpoint, we never want to get a penalty, we never want to rough the punter or the kicker,” Biagi said. “But we also want to be thinking ‘attacking and aggressive mindset.’ It allows those guys to have that edge, that chip on the shoulder. They can take a deep breath before the ball is even snapped to know, ‘Hey, I can go do this. I want to go make this play.’ “
Logan Diggs, Jaylen Sneed among practice observers
For the second straight Saturday, junior running back Logan Diggs walked into the indoor practice facility in street clothes and wearing glasses, a hoodie covering his head.
Diggs took mental reps from a safe distance, intermittently tucked a football under his left arm and seemed in good spirits as he nodded somberly during a brief conversation with offensive line coach Joe Rudolph.
Also limited to mental reps was redshirt freshman linebacker Jaylen Sneed. Backup guard Michael Carmody left position drills at least twice in the first third of practice.
Wide receivers Jayden Thomas and Jaden Greathouse (right knee) briefly came up limping after running pass routes in team portions of spring practice No. 6. Both receivers soon returned, Greathouse after having his right knee quickly examined.
Greathouse, an early enrollee from Austin, Texas, unofficially had a team-high seven receptions, including three from classmate Kenny Minchey in a span of four pass attempts.
Ryan Barnes, a redshirt sophomore cornerback, ended the practice with a leaping interception of Steve Angeli’s end-zone fade intended for freshman receiver Braylon James.
Dropped passes were a problem for much of the session that was open to the media as well as another overflow weekend groups of visiting recruits and their families.
Chris Tyree, experimenting as a full-time slot receiver, dropped two passes, both from Sam Hartman.
Spencer Shrader worth the wait
Walk-ons Zac Yoakam and Chris Salerno are handling the placekicking chores with Spencer Shrader, the South Florida grad transfer, not set to enroll until June.
Blake Grupe, who made a successful transition as an Arkansas State grad transfer, trained with Shrader leading up to Notre Dame’s recent Pro Day.
“He’s come out here with me; he’s getting good work,” Grupe said on March 24. “He’s got a heck of a leg on him. He is an athlete. He’s a big kid. I think we’re in good hands next year.”
Grupe, who went 12-for-14 at Pro Day with misses from 54 and 65 yards, smiled when asked who would prevail in a kicking contest.
“I’m kicking NFL balls, he’s kicking college balls,” Grupe said of Shrader. “I think I could duke it out with him. It would be a good battle, for sure.”
Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.