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Sports Saturday

Notre Dame kicker Jonathan Doerer comes up big in key moment

Doerer’s mental work pays off as he nails Irish’s first game-winning kick since 2016.

Jonathan Doerer, who has been working on his mental game for years, converted his first chance at a game-winning kick with Notre Dame in the opener.
Jonathan Doerer, who has been working on his mental game for years, converted his first chance at a game-winning kick with Notre Dame in the opener.
Gary McCullough/AP

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The first game-winning kick of Jonathan Doerer’s Notre Dame career had just split the uprights Sunday night in Tallahassee when his mind turned to the next order of business.

Evading his jubilant teammates.

“I didn’t want to get dogpiled,” Doerer said of his 41-yarder in overtime that gave the Irish a 41-38 win over Florida State. “I’m kind of a skinny guy. I don’t think that would have been too good for me.”

As Doerer zig-zagged his way to the visiting corner of Doak Campbell Stadium, he did so safe in the knowledge that his best-laid plans had come true.

Returning for a COVID-created fifth season as a so-called super senior.

Decommitting from Maryland when a Notre Dame scholarship popped open very late in the 2017 recruiting cycle.

And, yes, visualizing just such a moment so many times, even as Notre Dame hadn’t experienced a game-winning field goal since Justin Yoon’s 23-yarder with 30 seconds left against Miami in 2016.

For Doerer, his thoughts raced back to his freshman year at South Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s when his JV team rallied from a 21-point halftime hole and prevailed 45-42 on his 29-yard field goal with a minute left.

There had been one other game-winning opportunity during his high school career, but he missed that one from 43 yards. He remembers the ball flying true and high, carrying over the right upright with ease, but the refs waved it off.

“They said it was no good,” Doerer said. “I was kind of thinking about that when I went out there [in overtime]. I was like, ‘Ah, I can finally exorcise those demons.’ ”

Known primarily for leg strength on his booming kickoffs but not for accuracy, Doerer had been building his mental game for years in anticipation of the opportunity that finally came his way.

Through conversations with Amber Selking, the sports psychologist who has worked with the Notre Dame football program since 2017, Doerer had learned to treat such moments as opportunities to be cherished instead of dreaded.

“You dream about it,” Doerer said before the season began. “I think about those things. I think about them consistently. Sometimes I’ll just be walking to class by the stadium, and you just start daydreaming about it.”

Now pursuing a master’s degree in the Mendoza School of Business after securing his sociology degree in the spring, Doerer is prone to overanalysis of even the slightest slump. One of those came late in the 2020 season as his leg and mechanics wore down.

“The visualization aspect is a huge part of what we do,” said Doerer, the oldest player on the team. “It’s something I lean on a lot.”

Long before he beat the Seminoles, whose own kicker had missed minutes before in OT, Doerer had spent countless mental reps on the kick that could define his Irish career.

“I try to visualize different spots on the field and different camera angles of the ball going through,” he said. “From behind the end zone [or] the ball going through from my point of view. I sometimes visualize myself seeing the ball.”

That would make it almost an out-of-body experience. Which, come to think of it, was kind of what took place Sunday night.

Body control has been another key component for Doerer, who at 6-3½ is taller than the prototypical kicker. He has studied video of Harrison Butker (Chiefs), Brandon McManus (Broncos) and Steven Hauschka (recently retired after 13 NFL seasons), all of whom stand in the same 6-3 or 6-4 range.

Getting his size-12 1/2 kicking cleat onto a quarter-sized target has been Doerer’s daily challenge.

Special-teams coordinator Brian Polian has been known to get out his tape measure and mark the exact spots on the turf to help Doerer with his stride length. Polian compares the process to the Arthur Murray Dance Studio.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Doerer said. “I’ve got more length, more leverage, so the ball is going to go higher and farther on average. It also decreases your margin of error.”

On a career-defining night in Tallahassee, Doerer didn’t miss.