Our series continues today with special teams, a pleasant surprise for Notre Dame this year.
Summary: We will start with punt return, since anything and everything on Notre Dame's special teams comes back to this unit, which has been, well, not very good in recent years. Fortunately for the Irish, they have a captain in TJ Jones who not only is their best offensive player, but who also volunteered for the arduous task toward the end of the spring. And while his initial foray did not go without its cringe-inducing moments, Jones has certainly grown with time as the punt return man, becoming a valuable threat their for the Irish.
Notre Dame finished 116th nationally last year in punt returns and tallied just 46 total punt return yards. The Irish already have 71 punt returns yards through six games this season, and Jones had a nice 27-yard return this past Saturday against Arizona State. Notre Dame is actually a respectable 47th nationally in punt returns so far, averaging 10.14 yards per return.
Behind George Atkinson III, the Irish are even better on kick returns, averaging 24.89 yards per return, good for 24th nationally. The kick-return defense has been less than stellar, as opponents are returning kicks at a rate of 25.29 yards per return, making the Irish 108th nationally in that department. But they are 34th in punt return defense, allowing just 4.83 yards per return, and they have not given up a return score this season.
Junior Kyle Brindza deserves plenty of credit this season, especially given the heavy workload he has had on his plate. Brindza hit a 53-yard field goal Saturday to tie Dave Reeve's school record for length, and he is 8-for-11 on the season. He earned the game-ball for his efforts in a tight 17-13 home win over Michigan State in Week 4. One of Brindza's punts was blocked in that same game, but that was more of a protection breakdown by Jarron Jones, who also has a blocked kick himself this season. Brindza has averaged 41.5 yards on 21 punts, with Wake Forest transfer Alex Wulfeck averaging 34 yards per punt on his six boots.