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Notre Dame Football

Veteran special teams units help Polian's stress levels

August 26, 2021
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Brian Polian isn't ready to relinquish all the stresses associated with preseason camp, top-10 expectations and life, in general, as an assistant coach at prestigious Notre Dame.

Polian, however, is willing to admit to a reduced stress level. Notre Dame's veteran special teams coordinator brings back several veteran players on all of the units, as well as returning punter Jay Bramblett and place-kicker Jonathan Doerer, for the 2021 season.

“In my career, I don't know if I've ever had a core group like this returning because you have (Bo) Bauer, you have (Jack) Kiser, you have (J.D.) Bertrand, you have (Isaiah) Pryor, Shayne Simon,” Polian said this week. “These guys that have started on three or four units that are all returning. So it has made my stress level – my stress-level is always high but it has not been as high.

“Because I put the first punt team out there this training camp and I look at everybody up front and they all started last year. We've got some new guys in shield; I miss Brock Wright and I miss Jack Lamb. But to have that core group back and then to have three veteran specialists (including long-snapper Michael Vinson), I've been very blessed this camp and you don't take it for granted.”

RETURNING ROTATION?

Reminded that reigning national champion Alabama had at times used 2020 Heisman Trophy winner and eventual first-round NFL Draft pick DeVonta Smith as a special teams return man, Polian made clear that the Tide's star-power on special teams wasn't lost on him.

Polian even conjured up an old Irish rival as an additional example. His message was clear: If Brian Kelly, and by extension offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, are willing to share some of the Irish's most gifted skill players in the return game, Polian will find them a home.

“I noticed (DeVonta Smith). Christian McCaffery,” Polian said. “Look, we've put a bunch of people back there right now. Coach Kelly and I have had numerous discussions about this very topic, and I don't think we've arrived at our answer quite yet but we've had a lot of people back there. I feel like we're fairly confident in our choices.”

Polian said last season's eventual starter at punt returner, Matt Salerno, would absolutely return into a significant role this year. But he insisted it isn't only Salerno's job. Lorenzo Styles Jr., Kevin Austin Jr. and other dynamic Irish skill players have also repped as return men in camp.

“Oh you'll see him, but he won't be the only guy you see,” Polian said of Salerno, the walk-on junior who worked in 11 games last season as the Irish punt returner. “We're not there yet. While the rest of the team is shifting to Florida State, I get 25 minutes a day … so I'm not at Florida State yet. I'm still in training camp, I've still got probably three or four more days before I have to make a decision.”

Polian also indicated ball security remained paramount for the Irish punt return unit because of his group's ability to ratchet up pressure on opposing punters. Notre Dame blocked punts last season against South Florida and Pittsburgh; it similarly generated a pair of blocked punts in 2019, with Isaiah Foskey thwarting one in each season.

The Irish ranked tied for second nationally with the two blocks in 12 games.

“We got really good at heating up the punter last year,” Polian said. “We blocked two for touchdowns. We blocked two the previous year. We became a heat team, and when we heat up the punter, and we don't get there but we speed him up, instead of a 44-yard punt, we get a 34-yard punt, that's like a 10-yard return.

“It kind of just depends on the demeanor that we're going to take. And that's something we're still trying to work through.”

YOUTH MOVEMENT?

Because of the Irish's depth in general across their special teams units, even with Liufau's prolonged absence, Polian has not felt the same crunch to expedite the readiness of some younger players.

That's not to say, however, that Polian hasn't seen some of the first- and second-year Irish lay the foundation for special teams roles.

“There are some guys, but the beauty of this year is that I don't feel any urgency to get any freshmen ready,” he said. “Now, at some point we're going to need somebody because we're going to get nicked up.

“(Freshman safety) Justin Walters I think has done a really nice job. I really like (freshman cornerback) Philip Riley; he's a competitive dude. I like (wideout) Lorenzo Styles. Xavier Watts (another wideout) is not really a freshman but a younger player.

“There are guys that we're going to get ready. But fortunately we're in a year right now where I'm not totally panicked like, 'Oh, my God I've got to get this young guy ready to go' or we're going to have to limit what we do early on because we got young people out there.”

 
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