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On the punt returns

by Pat, Right behind you, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 19:57

No doubt one of the big stories of the 2011 season is the punt returns, or, more accurately, lack thereof.

But while the 0.3 yards per return average (good for dead last in the country) is awful, it really seems any criticism focusing on that number is missing the point. The real criticism in my mind is why ND seemingly abandoned any attempt to return a punt following the Purdue game.

(After all, with such a small sample size (10 returns) ND could have had an artificially high return average as easily as a bad one and that wouldn't change the fact that ND still refused to return punts. Case in point, ND was 119th in the country in punt return percentage, which I calculated as percent of total punts returned. The Irish only returned 14.9% of all punts punted to them. However, the last place team, Northwestern, only returned 12.2% of all punts yet were also 12th in the nation in punt return average with a 12.8 yards/punt mark. A superficial glance would say they were good at punt returns even though they only returned 6 on the entire season.)

Anyway, while understandable that Kelly initially went for the reliable fair catching Goodman after Riddick's drop against USF, the fact that outside of a few cameos by Floyd it was strictly fair catch Goodman seems puzzling. And Kelly's statement that he was going to put off "fixing" punt returns until the spring was one of the more unbelievable things I've heard a coach say.

Was it strictly a function of not having a reliable and athletic punt returner? I find it hard to believe that guys like Toma or Cam McDaniel or even Riddick looked that bad in practice over the course of the season. The other two main options seem like the more likely choices.

1. ND's punt return schemes were poorly designed (and/or executed).


2. ND opted for the most conservative strategy, playing against a fake and forgoing punt return yardage in order to prevent a fake punt.

#1 seems plausible, but I don't know enough about punt returns to know that. Anyone who knows their punt returns feel free to chime in.

#2 seems like what we saw plenty of times, as I recall a number of punts when ND was essentially playing the starting defense instead of a punt return team. This might be the most likely answer. But what does it say that the only fake punt that teams tried against ND (I think) succeeded?

Anyone have any thoughts? It does seem like a relatively easy thing to fix, so I'm not too worried about it. But the fact that it should be easy to fix and ND said they weren't even going to bother trying this season seemed sort of mind-blowing to me.

(As an aside, punt return percentages certainly seem to be dropping. The highest percentage of 2011 was 51% (Colorado State). Only 29 teams were over 40%. In 2007, 61 teams were over 40% with the high being 61% (Boise St.)

special teams


one other piece of data

by HumanRobot @, Cybertron, Monday, November 28, 2011, 14:12 @ Pat

Suppose ND could transplant the top punt return team in the country. This would get you

-3.2 returns a game if you had FSU
-16.18 yards/return if you had Fresno's unit
-3 TDs if you had Idaho or Arkansas's unit

An average unit gets you

-1.6 returns a game
-8 yards a return
-0 TDs as median, about half a TD as an average

What you had was

-0.8 returns a game
-0.3 yards a return
-0 TDs

I know all about "hidden yards" and whatnot, but it seems like the net benefit of spending a couple hours of practice time on the punt return unit are a net loss compared to trying to build core offensive and defensive fundamentals.


thanks - this provides some helpful perspective

by bpeters07 @, Sack Lake City, Monday, November 28, 2011, 14:31 @ HumanRobot

[ No text ]


What was ND's stat for opponent's net punt yardage

by Jeff (BGS), A starter home in suburban Tempe, Monday, November 28, 2011, 09:12 @ Pat

Not that I think any opponents were scared of punting to ND, but the real metric should be the punt minus the return yardage vs just the punt return.


On the spread formation

by Pat (Moco), Slave Den, Brian Cook's Basement, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 20:53 @ Pat

The traditional punt formation essentially utilizes two outside gunners who should be the first men down the field (along with the snapper) after a punt. The spread formation essentially makes there be 7 gunners on the line, meaning the return cannot set up traditionally, but has to account for each individual player. In rushing, you can send 4 guys and hope one gets through (like Blanton vs. Utah last year), or pull some back to account for the fake.

If I were in charge, this is what I would do to change their returns:

1. Decide if they are going to block or return each punt. In doing so:
a. (Return) Stop sending the 3 guys at the punter. They are wasted potential blockers and 1, maybe 2 of them could easily account for fakes. They need to watch the LSU fake vs. Florida as an example of what NOT to do, but should at least give the appearance that they are paying attention for a fake.
b. (Block) Send fast guys who can also cover in the event of a fake. These, ideally, should be DBs.

2. Teach each guy out there how to block.
--The players on the field should be linebacker/DB types. These guys should be able to have the speed to get back for a return or cover in the event of a fake.
--Blocking a spread formation is a lot like covering a receiver downfield. You never let him get past you and you start blocking approximately 3.5 seconds after the kick (guess on the hangtime).
--The extras who aren't rushing the kick should get their asses back to the return man and look for someone who sprang free from their man.

3. Have a return man who has zero fear and great hands.


One more point

by Jeremy (WeIsND), Offices of Babip Pecota Vorp & Eckstein, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 20:51 @ Pat

And this is purely subjective and not backed up by stats, but...

The most likely time to expect a punt return to make a big difference is when the defense is pinned deep and punting into (usually) good field position.

I just can't recall too many times in which our opposition was pinned deep and punting. I don't know if this has something to do with Brindza's gradual inability to kick it into (or even near) the end zone, or the fact that our defense, while often stout, didn't produce as many 3-and-outs as one might expect from an "elite" defense.

I suppose when looking back at this season, people will point to the punt returns and identify it as another data point in Kelly's "small-timey ness" and that's fine. But I just can't really see how a more effective punt return would have mad a significant contribution to the success of the season as a whole.


Punting and field position national data

by LaFortune Teller ⌂ @, South Bend, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 22:15 @ Jeremy (WeIsND)

good points, one more

by Spesh ⌂ @, Los Angeles, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 20:55 @ Jeremy (WeIsND)

How many times did we fail to pin an offense with a good punt? Turk was shanking them at the beginning of the year, and by the end, it seemed like too many wasted punts into the end zone.


I think that's perception more than reality.

by Pat (Moco), Slave Den, Brian Cook's Basement, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 21:35 @ Spesh
edited by Pat (Moco), Sunday, November 27, 2011, 22:00

The first half of the season, Turk had zero touchbacks and 7 inside the 20. The second half of the season, Turk had 4 touchbacks and 5 inside the 20, however 3 of those touchbacks were against BC, the fourth last night. It wasn't so much that we never pinned them deep, but rather that when we punted, we weren't in a position to have a touchback.

Turk averaged 42.72 yards per punt in the second half of the season. Factoring in average, our average line of scrimmage from where we were punting in order for there to be a touchback had to be, at most, our own 38 (meaning it would be downed at the 20 or go into the end zone, touching back, and being placed at the 20). 20% of his punts were downed inside the 20, 16% touchbacked, and the rest landed in the field of play, outside the 20 yard line. To me, that means a lot of our punts were deeper in our own end.

EDIT: Just to sum that up, he did waste some punts but most of them were in one game, BC, where he had 1 inside the 20 vs. 3 touchbacks. Where I say it's perception is the old kicker mantra, "They'll always remember you for the ones you miss," because last night he had 1 touchback to 2 inside the 20, 2 inside the 20 vs. Maryland, and no others in the prior four games. Essentially, that perception of wasted punts came in two games, whereas he was perfect in the other 10 (at least when it came to landing them inside the 20). For what it's worth, in the first half of the season, his inside the 20s came against Michigan (2), MSU (2), Pitt (3), Purdue (1), and AF (1).


If you want to put a feather in Elston's cap

by Jeremy (WeIsND), Offices of Babip Pecota Vorp & Eckstein, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 23:01 @ Pat (Moco)

Look no further than Turk, who went from being one of the worst punters in recent memory to a pretty significant weapon late in the year. Hopefully he can keep that going into next year.


"Hey Ben - when you think, you stink"

by FunkDoctorSpock, Your Nightmares, B* tches, Monday, November 28, 2011, 07:44 @ Jeremy (WeIsND)

Kid really benefited from the rugby punt


It's all mental.

by Pat (Moco), Slave Den, Brian Cook's Basement, Monday, November 28, 2011, 11:08 @ FunkDoctorSpock

What was killing him at the beginning of the season was his drop, and the rugby punt allowed him to use his leg strength, absent a decent drop. After he booted a couple 40+ers, he gained confidence and was very dependable at the end of the year. Had he maintained his second-half average for the entirety of the season, he would be ranked 27th in the country.


First time i noticed was when a snap was skipped back.

by FunkDoctorSpock, Your Nightmares, B* tches, Monday, November 28, 2011, 11:23 @ Pat (Moco)

I believe, against Michigan. He had no time to futz around and just fuckin booted the thing. Reminds me of when Weis would go No Huddle when Quinn was gripping the bat too tight.


on your aside at the end

by Jay ⌂, San Diego, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 20:27 @ Pat

A few weeks ago, I looked into something Kelly had said earlier in the season, talking about how the spread punt formation of modern times has really limited returns. I wanted to see if this was true. I looked at the NCAA stats going back to 2001 or so, and didn't see any real change in punt return average over the last 10 years.

What I didn't account for (and what is impossible to track on a per-team basis using the NCAA stat site) is the number of fair catches as a percentage of all punts, which you found via cfbstats was increasing significantly since 2007. Very interesting.


here's the quick and dirty speadsheet

by Pat, Right behind you, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 20:38 @ Jay

To take a better look at the issue we'd need to look at more than just 2 years, but there does seem to be an obvious trend.


history of punt returns / fair catches

by Jay ⌂, San Diego, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 21:12 @ Pat
edited by Jay, Friday, August 03, 2012, 09:49

Looking at numbers of punts and returns across football on a season by season basis. Pretty steep decline from 2002 to to 2011:


Season	Punts	Returns	% Returned
2002	7758	3919	51%
2005	7036	3029	43%
2008	7057	2709	38%
2011	6749	2144	32%

source: NCAA stats site

charts, special teams


Would you mind if I used this data in a post on HLS?

by PootND ⌂ @, Jersey City, Monday, November 28, 2011, 08:38 @ Jay

with obvious credit to where it came from?


sure, go for it

by Jay ⌂, San Diego, Monday, November 28, 2011, 08:47 @ PootND

You can look up the in-between years if you want to make it complete. I just picked every three years.

Here's the link to 2011. Just rotate the year in the URL to see the other years.


odd thing is Cincinnati under Elston was #18 in 2009

by Spesh ⌂ @, Los Angeles, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 20:16 @ Pat

So they clearly know what it takes to return punts.

I think it was mostly an issue of personnel, and rather than spend a lot of time on it at the cost of losing practice time for offense/defense, Kelly gambled that he was only costing the team a few yards per return.

Who were on the return teams last year and this year? Would that be easy to find out and break down?

I'm also curious to see if it's something they play around with during the bowl preparations. That first week of practices would be the perfect time to do it. Most of the time teams just use that first week to let their starters rest and develop the younger players. ND could use that time to experiment with the return game.


while most of the Cincy returns

by Pat, Right behind you, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 20:27 @ Spesh

can probably be explained with the words "Mardy Gilyard", it might be interesting to take a look at how they set up returns for him blocking-wise. Like you said, it was the same special teams coach.

I think I agree that they just decided the "lost yards" really weren't that much and there were other things they wanted to spend practice time on. The offense had pretty good success moving the ball between the 20s so the 8 yards or so they forfeited by fair catching everything wasn't always that difficult to pick back up. (another odd punt return stat nugget. Ole Miss finished 3rd in the nation in punt return average. But since October 1st, they had the exact same total punt return yards as ND: -3. Another reason why just looking at the punt return average can be misleading.)

As for bowl game prep, I wouldn't expect much. After all, we heard that GAII and Cam would be important to the Stanford game with Jonas out. But they didn't even get one snap as Riddick, who hadn't played RB in two years and still is recovering from a hamstring injury, jumped both of them on the depth chart. My guess is the staff is fine with the status quo on punt returns and will just worry about it in the spring.


I think the Mardy Gilyard defense is too superficial

by Domer99, John Wesley Powell's Expedition Island, Monday, November 28, 2011, 07:54 @ Pat
edited by Domer99, Monday, November 28, 2011, 10:14

I think there were a lot of revelations that came forth in the USF game. Stuff that gets jotted down and thrown into the "things to work on in the spring for next season." Items like turnovers, quarterback productivity, punt returns, ect.

In retorspect, it's pretty fascinating that such important long-term decisions were seemingly made in 1 or 2 halves of football but I guess that's coaching.

I only say that I don't think it's as easy as saying "Mardy Gilyard" because Kelly had respectable numbers at Central Michigan, too.

(looks like the above link might not come out right go to: and on the team stats look up page on the right hand side select CMU and whatever year you want to see for team stats. It will show you team stats over the past 12 years).

At CMU, Kelly had the 2nd most productive punt return year (in terms of total return yardage) dating back to the 2000 season.

At Cincy, he had the most productive year over that span. But also looking at each season, there appears to be a high degree of volatility too, which might mean he recognizes a problem and cuts bait to be tabled for the next year.

Att. Yards TDs
CMU Team Totals - 2004-05 - - 16 203 1
CMU Team Totals - 2005-06 - - 26 280 2
CMU Team Totals - 2006-07 - - 27 144 0
Cinci Team Totals - 2007-08 - - 21 173 2
Cinci Team Totals - 2008-09 - - 37 352 0
Cinci Team Totals - 2009-10 - - 19 247 1


I think it was a return scheme issue

by HumanRobot @, Cybertron, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 20:08 @ Pat

Did not study the issue extensively, but it seemed like we were consistently leaving guys unblocked from the middle of the punt formation. The long snapper typically had free reign all the way down the field.

I don't think the choice of returner had much of an impact.


I think the long snapper thing is pretty regular

by Jeremy (WeIsND), Offices of Babip Pecota Vorp & Eckstein, Sunday, November 27, 2011, 20:21 @ HumanRobot

You know, the whole "blocking the snapper" thing.

I have to say that I can't really blame Kelly too much for this - he's only got so much time (20 hrs I think) to work with the kids during the week, and I can understand wanting to spend as much of that time as possible working with the other parts of the team.

I'm surprised to hear that he won't be spending any of the bowl prep on trying to come up with something. Or that there wasn't any time spent on this during the bye week.

He seems to have legitimate concerns that there isn't anyone currently on the roster that can effectively return a punt. I'd have to think that GAIII will get a long look next year, along with maybe some of the freshmen (Brown, Prosise, maybe Agholor?).

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