The Other Return

                                                                                           Getty Images


Craig Chval ‘15

Teams that gain more yards typically score more points. In case you don’t believe me, here’s a chart.

Now that we’ve covered our basic football facts, this chart can actually tell us some cool things. For instance, if you average 300 yards per game, you’re probably going to score about 18 points a game. If you average 406 yards per game (like Notre Dame did in 2013), you’re looking at around 29.3 points.

So yards are good. One way to get them is right off the bat on return yardage, which Notre Dame has been rather deficient in lately. At least, up until Saturday.

In five returns against Rice, Cody Riggs and Greg Bryant combined for 80 yards, the most for an Irish team since 2009, when Golden Tate was back there fielding punts.

Here’s a look at the last four seasons of punt return yards per game, plus Saturday.

2010: 7.0 YPG

2011: 3.7 YPG

2012: 3.5 YPG

2013: 8.2 YPG

2014: 80 yards

Back to our chart, 80 yards of offense gets you about 8.7 extra points. Now, punt return yardage and offensive yardage aren’t interchangeable, but a yard is a yard is a yard. If the Irish get 80 yards from punt returns every week, they can expect to score about 101.2 more points this year than last year – just from punt returns.

Punt return yards are less valuable than offensive yards, but not by a lot. It’s safe to say that increasing your punt returning by 70 yards a game could yield an extra 5-7 points every week on average. In the Brian Kelly era, Notre Dame has lost six games by fewer than five points.

As a pretty big proponent of sound special teams play, I was very excited to see the marked improvement in the season opener. I’m not sure we’ll be able to get 80 yards against everyone on our schedule, but the game showed a significant emphasis on making the punt return team better.

To get an insight into new-look returns, yesterday I sat down with Greg Bryant, who shared his approach to the return game.

“If you’re on punt return, you can’t be scared to make plays,” he said. “You’ve just got to do what you’ve been doing since you were little. You can’t be cautious and always just throw your hand up for a fair catch every time. You’ve just got to be a playmaker and a difference maker.”

Although Bryant and Riggs did indeed make a big difference, there was notable improvement in the whole team, particularly with blocking. But Coach Kelly knows the importance of that big-play potential from his two returners.

“We have got guys back there that are fearless, that will catch the football and stick their foot in the ground and get north and south, and that is absolutely crucial,” Kelly said in his post-game press conference. “And we have guys that are committed to covering people up. So we have got the want to and the resolve to do and we have to continue to do it.”

Kelly also joked that Bryant “does not know what a fair catch is,” referring to a play when he attempted a return surrounded by a number of Owl players. Onlookers thought perhaps a fair catch was the prudent move, but the sophomore back isn’t so sure.

“Maybe, but even if I would have fair caught it, I would have been at the same spot I was, and I probably picked up another two yards,” he pointed out with a laugh. “When the ball’s in the air, they [defenders] can’t see the ball, they only can see you. And I feel like I’m quick enough with the ball in my hands to make a person miss as soon as I’ve got the ball.

“I’m going to make a play by any means, so I’m not worried. I’ve just got that swagger about myself that it’s going to be hard to tackle me.”

To be fair, he did get the team three yards with the play.

With his contributions to both offense and special teams, Bryant wowed Notre Dame fans with his ability. He gained 71 yards on the ground on just eight carries in addition to his impact on returns. It was his first game action since Michigan State last year, before an injury caused him to miss the rest of 2013.

A hard-fought punt return may give the team an extra three yards, but it also gives Bryant just a little more time on the field he has sorely missed.

“Last year, that was one of the most disappointing times of my life, not playing football, which I love,” he said. “So coming back this year, I just wanted to get better at every aspect of the game and come back and make plays.”

Bryant will face a bit of a bigger challenge this week against Michigan. I asked him if we’ll see him out there returning punts again this season.

“Yeah, definitely,” he assured me. “Definitely, don’t worry.”

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