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Notre Dame Football

“Chaos Kills” | How Brian Mason Approaches Special Teams at Notre Dame

November 9, 2022

Special teams coordinator Brian Mason knew that if Clemson was forced to punt close to their own end zone, Notre Dame would have the opportunity to block it.

“If they do it, let’s go take it to the house,” Mason told Irish players prior to the game.

That’s exactly what happened after the first Tiger offensive possession. Clemson was forced to punt from its own 21-yard line. 

The Tigers snapped the ball and Jordan Botelho broke through the middle of Clemson’s protection, blocking the punt. Prince Kollie recovered the ball in the air at the 15-yard line and returned it for an early Fighting Irish touchdown.

“We really didn't have a numbers advantage on that play,” Mason said. “It was three for three, and Jordan Botelho just beat their middle shield.”

That play set the tone for Notre Dame’s 35-14 win over No. 4 Clemson and took pressure off the Irish offense, which was driving into the wind in the first quarter. 

Pretty much everyone other than Mason was a bit surprised the Irish blocked yet another punt. Notre Dame leads the nation in blocked punts with six, five of which came in the last four games. 

“We're not tricking anybody,” coach Marcus Freeman said.

Without the element of surprise, how are the Irish defenders still able to get home?

“It starts at the top,” Mason said. “Coach Freeman allows us on special teams to use some of our frontline players. We have some really good defensive players that are on the punt block team. They’re bought in and you start to have some success and it just kind of builds on it. They're excited to have more success, and we've just got to keep pushing to find ways to get better.”

Mason isn’t a stranger to success on special teams. He served as the special teams coordinator at Cincinnati from 2018-21. The Bearcats blocked six kicks/punts last season and five in 2019.

It’s all part of his approach to special teams. Not only does he have great players, but he also does his best to confuse opponents.

“It's chaos kills. We want to generate chaos in the game,” Mason said. “We're trying to be aggressive, tough and disciplined.”

For instance, they moved Botelho around multiple times prior to his blocked punt on Saturday, which forced Clemson to check the play multiple times.

“There's probably a little bit of confusion there,” Mason said. “They ended up snapping the ball just one second on the play clock, and I think they got a little rushed.”

Mason has also found ways to bolster other special team units. The Irish lost punter Jay Bramblett, who transferred to LSU in the offseason. He currently ranks 14th in the nation in yards per punt.

The Irish brought in Jon Sot, a graduate transfer from Harvard to replace him. He was a solid punter for the Crimson, averaging 39.7 yards per boot in 2021. 

Under Mason, his average has jumped up almost four full yards to 43.69 yards per punt, which ranks 33rd in the nation.

Sot and Mason should have their work cut out for them this weekend. Navy has yet to block a punt this year, but the Midshipmen also do their best to create chaos. 

“Navy is a really good punt block team,” Mason said. “Whether they have some blocks on paper or not, they do a really good job of putting stress on people and being aggressive in very similar ways that we do. That's a great challenge for us this week.”

The Irish could also be without its punt returner this weekend. Safety Brandon Joseph, who ranks 14th with 9.94 return yards per punt,  is questionable against Navy due to a sprained ankle. With wide receiver Joe Wilkins in the transfer portal, Mason said he planned to explore potential replacements for Joseph during Wednesday’s practice.

One area where Notre Dame needs to see improvement is in place kicker Blake Grupe. He started off strong, missing just one field goal attempt in the first six games of the season. 

Grupe has misfired on a field goal attempt of 39 yards or greater in each of the last three games. That includes a 42-yard attempt that went wide left in the first half against Clemson, albeit in windy conditions.

“If you don't make solid ball contact and you don't have clean rotation, the wind can take your ball more than it should,” Mason said. “So that's on us. We need to execute better and have solid ball contact. The wind did push it to the left, but if we made better ball contact and place the ball better, we would have made the field goal, which is what we needed to do.”

On the season, Grupe is 9 for 14 on field goal attempts. His 71.4 percent average ranks 77th in the nation.

At least for fans, it’s easier to forgive missed field goals when they’re compensated with blocked punts and special teams touchdowns. 

But Mason knows each of his remaining opponents could easily prevent Notre Dame from blocking another punt this season, and he’s just fine with that option, too. 

“There are ways that it's impossible for us to block a kick or punt: get rid of it really fast,” Mason said. “If they want to get rid of it really fast, we won't be able to block it, but it's usually not the best punt. That's the idea.”

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