Skip to main content

Notre Dame's Brian Polian has unlocked recipe for special teams buy-in

The Fighting Irish's special teams coordinator has a deep unit that could be a game-changer this fall for Notre Dame, and Polian shares his methods here.

Video highlights, and the motivational material inherently supplied within, are de rigueur in football meeting rooms.

They provide teaching moments. Electric moments – big hits or a key return – foster camaraderie among special teams units.

Notre Dame veteran special teams coordinator Brian Polian brings unique complements to his video tools: financial spreadsheets and a bevy of NFL perspectives.

“People like the Patriots keep Nate Ebner on their roster because that guy can play four core units,” Polian said of Ebner, currently a free agent and a former rugby player who became a sixth-round pick out of Ohio State in 2012 and spent eight years with New England. “Every scout that asks me about (current Notre Dame special teams dynamo) Bo Bauer, listen, I don't care what grade you put on him as a linebacker, that guy can make your team.

“Because he will be a four-unit starter and he will be a difference-maker.”

Polian's cache in NFL circles, as well as the undeniable success of his Fighting Irish's special teams' units, go hand-in-hand with the culture shift in the game's third phase at Notre Dame.

Walk-ons remain a critical component of those phases -- Matt Salerno is a returning walk-on with 11 games' experience as punt returner in 2020 -- but not so much that it's a competitive disadvantage.

“Coach (Brian) Kelly and I were talking during training camp, how far the atmosphere around the kicking game has changed in the years since I've returned,” Polian said. “When I got back here, we were begging guys, like, 'Dude, you gotta. You can't [not play teams].' And we were telling them, 'You're hurting your value in the NFL' and we saw, at times, it came to fruition.

“Where we were begging guys and then we had the Rod Regans [former Irish walk-on who was named 2017 Notre Dame Walk-on Players Union Player of the Year] of the world out there, we were playing with walk-ons because they were all-in,” said Polian, a 25-year college coaching veteran who also serves as Kelly's associate head coach. “And now you've got this core group of talented players that all buy in and it's come a long, long way in four years.”

Though Ebner isn't an Notre Dame alumnus, Sergio Brown is. So, too, is David Bruton. They spent a combined 15 years in the NFL and became fixtures on their various teams' special teams units.

More recently, scouts loved big-bodied Notre Dame wideout Chase Claypool ahead of the 2020 NFL Draft. Not just for Claypool's freakish athleticism and elite ball skills, but also because early in Claypool's career he worked his way onto the field with the Irish via Polian's troops.

“We've done that with Chase Claypool,” Polian said after Claypool was named an NFL All-Rookie selection for his debut campaign after the Pittsburgh Steelers selected him with the 49th overall pick. “We point back to James Onwualu, we point back to … I took our team back to … I showed our team who Sergio Brown and David Bruton were. David Bruton's got a Super Bowl ring and made millions of dollars. He played eight years in the league; he played eight years in the league because he was a great teams player. Sergio the same thing.

“Then I show film, I put up, 'Hey, here's his career. Look at the money he's made.' And then we put up quotes from talent evaluators, about the value that Claypool added. I firmly believe this: our job first and foremost is to help our team win. My second job is to help them and show them how to increase their value if they want to play beyond Notre Dame.”

Polian sees the tangible evidence he displays now on display in the Irish's special teams.

A year ago, Notre Dame tied for second nationally with a pair of blocked punts -- the second year in a row the Irish blocked multiple punts. They also did not allow a blocked kick and ranked in the top 25 nationally in both kickoff return coverage (24th) and net punting (18th).

“I think that message is getting across,” he said. “Guys recognize it. And I'm fortunate to have enough friends in the NFL that I can reach out to (Chargers general manager) Tom Telesco, who's a high school and college classmate and say, 'Tom, can you just give me two sentences about what you guys evaluate and I can share that with our team?'

“To have access to that kind of information to share with our guys, it's a big deal.”