Notre Dame special teams provide too many ‘head scratchers’

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly calls the repeated blunders the Fighting Irish keep making on special teams “head scratchers.”

That’s the polite way of phrasing it.

The miscues have played a major role in why the Fighting Irish (3-5) have struggled. A blocked punt was the only touchdown scored in a 10-3 loss at North Carolina State. The Irish were leading 20-0 against Miami on Saturday when the Hurricanes recovered a bouncing punt that ricocheted off Tony Pride Jr., igniting a 27-0 run that included an onside kick, a partially blocked punt and a muffed punt that Miami recovered in in the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown before the Irish rallied to win .

Another bouncing punt against Michigan State ricocheted off Miles Boykin, sparking a 36-0 run by the Spartans in a 36-28 loss for the Irish — a game in which a 100-yard return by C.J. Sanders on the opening kickoff was called back because of a holding call. A 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Duke changed the momentum after the Irish jumped ahead 14-0, leading to a 38-35 victory by the Blue Devils.

Then there was a 74-yard punt return by Syracuse in which a player thought a fair catch had been signaled, a 24-yard punt by Tyler Newsome that set up a Texas touchdown and too many men on the field for a punt against Nevada.

Kelly said Tuesday part of the problem is the Irish have been playing a lot of young players. But he said coaches should be able “to get them to play at the highest level.”

“But we’ve had some lapses,” he said. “We’ve had some things that you would scratch your head. Nothing systemic in terms of schemes or players as much as these are head scratchers. So, yeah, we’re taking our lumps right now. But we’ve got to keep coaching them, and I think be even more clear when we go over the onside kick situation, where we didn’t attack the football. We work on it. We didn’t work on it enough, obviously.”

What makes the problem even more puzzling: Coaches are spending more time this season teaching special teams. Kelly also in the spring brought in special teams analyst Marty Biagi, a former punter and kicker at Marshall.

Kelly is considering making a change in punt returners after Sanders failed to run up and make the catch on the ball that bounced off Pride and then mistakenly tried to catch a bouncing punt at the 5-yard line instead of letting it roll into the end zone. Sanders and Chris Finke will compete for the position this week, Kelly said.

Kelly said the good news this week is when they face Navy (5-2) in Jacksonville, Florida, is that the Midshipmen don’t punt often. They’ve punted the ball 22 times this season, compared to 41 for Notre Dame.

“So there’s a breather there. So there are some things that we can really be focused on in terms of where we want to get better this week,” he said. “This is a probably get back to fundamentals week for us relative to special teams.”

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