Sept. 18, 2015
Kizer, the holder on the Irish field-goal squad, took the snap and faked a handoff to Yoon. Kizer then pulled the ball back and dished a shovel pass to Durham Smythe, who sprinted seven yards into the end zone and was mobbed by his teammates.
It was a play in the first quarter that would loom large by the time the 34-27 Irish victory burned bright on the scoreboard lights at Virginia’s Scott Stadium.
Notre Dame’s fake field goal for a touchdown underscored the dramatic impact special teams play can have in a football game.
One play to unleash a lightning strike.
One play to change destiny.
Whether it’s scoring on a deliciously deceptive fake field goal, or outkicking and outreturning opponents Notre Dame’s special teams have landed a staggering punch on the first two contests of the 2015 campaign.
“It’s a juice team,” said senior Matthias Farley, who has carved out a captain’s legacy on special teams in addition to his bruising style of play at defensive back. “A big play on special teams gives a team a lot of energy. If you make a big hit, or somebody blocks a punt, or we scored on a fake field goal this past week, the energy that brings to the entire team is critical.
“We have the philosophy of one-and-done. You go out there, you go as hard as you can for one play, whether it’s punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return, PAT, field-goal block … whatever team it is, it’s a mindset to go as hard as you can for that one play and give it your all, and know that the guy next to you is going to do the same.”
Freshman punt returner C.J. Sanders loves the team-first attitude he sees on the Irish special teams.
“What’s cool about our special teams is we have guys … everybody … guys who are on the offensive side of the ball,” Sanders said. “Torii (Hunter Jr.) is a jammer, he’s a receiver. KeiVarae Russell is out there. It’s cool that we have a blend of offensive and defensive players, outstanding players, who can make an impact on the game.”
Notre Dame’s depth has contributed to a culture where players battle for playing time. Tough, fast, physical and fierce, the Irish understand the critical nature of special teams.
“I think the buy in this year is across the board,” Farley said. “It’s the best we’ve had on the team the entire time I’ve been here. Everybody is putting an emphasis on it and working hard. Everybody is very committed. That’s something that translates into playing very well.
“Everyone understands the huge role that the special teams play in field position, how it affects the defense, how it affects the offense. It can put the offense in a better position to score, it can put the defense in a better position to back the offense up.”
Punter Tyler Newsome has played a key role in Notre Dame’s early special teams success. Newsome, a sophomore, is seventh in the nation with a punting average of 48.5 yards a game. He boomed four punts for 55.8 yards a kick against Virginia, another key special teams advantage for the Irish.
“What I love about our special teams is the count-on-me mentality that everybody has,” Newsome said. “If I don’t put it in the end zone, I know my teammates will go down there and knock a guy’s head off. They’re counting on me to hit the punt. I know if I hit the punt in the corner, they’re going to go down there and cover. I really like the whole accountability aspect that this team has in general. The offense, the defense, special teams … we all count on each other and hold each other to such a high standard. We know we’re going to achieve that.
“We have a bunch of guys who are all focused with the same goal. We want to win a national championship, just like the offense and the defense. We’re giving it 100 percent effort, and doing our part, just like they are.”
Farley said that no one wearing a gold helmet in the current Irish culture devalues the impact of special teams.
“It’s a huge part of the game,” Farley said of special teams. “I always remind myself, that guys in the past would say, ‘I’m on special teams. I wish I was playing.’
“I never had that mindset,” Farley said. “There are people who would do anything to run down on kickoff, or be on kickoff return, and never get the opportunity to do that. It’s a blessing to go out there each and every play. If you do something good on special teams, it translates positively for the entire team. If you tackle somebody inside the 20 , or inside the 15 on a kickoff, if you make your block and get a big return, it all translates. It puts the team in the best position to win. It might seem small compared to somebody who plays on 85 snaps in a game, but one play can make all the difference.”
Sanders is a player who can be a lightning strike for the Irish. Known for being elusively electrifying, the Irish know that Sanders will emerge as a difference-maker.
“Special teams can play a big part in a game,” Sanders said. “We’re able to make big plays and change the game. You can spark the team when we’re down by making something happen on special teams.
“Punt returning isn’t for everybody. If you want to be a punt returner, you have to be aggressive, and you have to be fearless. I know I’m going to take some hits, but I’m not scared of anybody. The main thing is being aggressive. You have to be mentally tough. You’re going to make mistakes. You have to tune everybody out and keep getting better. Coach (Autry) Denson has done a great job with me, staying after practice, helping me learn the skill of being a punt returner.”
Sanders has benefitted from exceptional resources in sharpening his skills as a lethal weapon on special teams.
“My Dad (Chris) played pro ball with the Titans,” Sanders said. “He’s best friends with Derrick Mason, who was a really good punt returner with the Titans and the Ravens.
“My Mom went to Michigan. She’s close friends with Desmond Howard, so I had a great opportunity to learn from him. I was able to learn their tendencies, I was able to work with them. I can call them and ask for tips. What was really great was I worked a lot with our punter, Tyler Newsome, in the summer.” Sanders believes that the special fabric of the Irish special teams will keep making an impact for Notre Dame.
“What I love about special teams is our selflessness,” Sanders said. “It doesn’t matter how big of a name the guy is, he’s willing to put it on the line for his brother. Nobody is saying, ‘I’m the defensive star. I’m not going to do special teams.’ Everybody is committed.”