After four years of watching Chris Finke fearlessly return punts, the boredom factor was impossible to ignore last year at Notre Dame.
Speedy Lawrence Keys had a couple of early-season mishaps and quickly gave way to Matt “Fair Catch” Salerno, who, as it turns out, was only following orders.
While Finke, aka “Slippery Fox,” often thrilled onlookers with his 8.2-yard career return average, including a career-best 9.8 yards in 2018, Salerno averaged just 4.5 yards per return in 2020.
That came on just 10 total returns as he primarily sought to avoid the big mistake.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say, ‘Boy, we have been Fair Catch Central,’ “ Brian Polian, Notre Dame’s assistant head coach and special teams coordinator, said recently. “Chris Finke averaged nearly a first down every time he returned a punt. That’s our goal.”
And yet …
“In the end,” said Polian, son of Hall of Fame football executive Bill Polian, “the security of the football and the transition of it from our defense to our offense is the single-most important factor.”
When Notre Dame followers bring up the name of Tom Zbikowski, who made punt return an art form for the Irish from 2005-07, you can almost hear the feathers ruffle among those in the coaching offices at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. Even in the past decade, Polian said, the difficulty of returning punts at the college level has increased dramatically.
“The game has changed; punt has changed,” said Polian, in his second tour with the Irish after a four-year run as head coach at Nevada from 2013-17. “Everybody in college used to look like the NFL with the two wide gunners .. and you would get more returnable punts.”
“With the shield punt, the college rules are different from the NFL rules,” Polian said. “Anybody can leave at the snap of the ball. Now you’re getting these big wide formations; you’re getting the three fat guys in the back, forming the shield, which is what we do. That concept, that style of punt, marks it harder.”
Ever try to catch a falling knife? That may be what punt return at the college level feels like for all but the most gifted at that discipline.
“You’ve got too many people around the returner when the ball is coming down,” Polian said. “In my opinion, you get one, maybe two really legitimate opportunities to return a punt in a game. What we preach to the team is you never know which one it’s going to be.”
To neutralize improved coverage units, Notre Dame has made more of an effort to block punts the past few years. Rising junior Isaiah Foskey, in particular, is a significant weapon in that area with his long levers and fast-twitch quickness.
If that means Notre Dame truly has become Fair Catch Central, so be it.
“With Salerno last year, because he catches the ball, we amped up our pressure and blocked two punts,” Polian said. “There’s a bunch of times we get close and we force a 38-yard punt. Well, that’s a good thing. If we keep people up and we make (opponents) uncomfortable, if we force a poor kick, that’s as good as an eight- to 10-yard return.”
Maybe so, but it’s not nearly as exciting.