Ji Yoon: Why is Sports Illustrated doing a feature story on Justin?
Sports Illustrated: Well, he is the leading scorer in Notre Dame football history.
Ji Yoon: But he’s just the kicker.
Ji Yoon, the father of Notre Dame kicker Justin Yoon, is joking as he opens an interview about how his son went from boarding school hockey player to the kicker for one of the four teams in the College Football Playoff. But inside Ji Yoon’s crack is a kernel of truth. Including kickoffs, extra points and field goals, Justin Yoon, the senior from Nashville who surpassed tailback Allen Pinkett’s school scoring record earlier this season, probably will be on the field in the Cotton Bowl against Clemson for less than 15 plays. But on one of those plays, Yoon may be called upon to win the game and give the Fighting Irish a chance to play for the national title.
“I never really think about it that way,” Justin Yoon says.
He can’t. The stakes of the kick can’t matter to him, because then he’ll think about the stakes of the kick and his brain might tinker with all that muscle memory Yoon has spent years building. So whether it’s an extra point in the first quarter or a 40-yard field goal attempt down two with three seconds remaining, Yoon will do the same thing. He’ll stare at the area just below holder Nolan Henry’s hands. He’s looking at where the ball will be placed and measuring exactly where his foot should hit. His eye won’t leave that spot until after his foot strikes the ball. If he does his job correctly, the only difference will be polite applause (for the extra point) or a combined roar (from the Notre Dame fans) and groan (from the Clemson fans) for the game-winner.
Twelve College Football Playoff games have been played since the format debuted in the 2014 season. Not one has come down to a kick. Last season’s national title game might have been decided by the combination of a missed 36-yarder at the end of regulation by Alabama’s Andy Pappanastos and a made 51-yarder by Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship in overtime, but Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa erased that possibility with a 41-yard touchdown strike to DeVonta Smith two plays after Blankenship’s bomb. The playoff is due for a game that ends with a kick either soaring through the uprights or sailing wide and into infamy.
Could Yoon make that kick? He certainly has the experience. He was born in Ohio, but his parents moved the family back to their native Korea when he was a baby. The Yoons returned to the U.S. when Justin was 10 and settled in Nashville. Young Justin played lacrosse, soccer and hockey because Ji—who spent his youth as a figure skater in Korea before choosing to leave to attend boarding school in America—liked the structure and discipline of practice. Justin gave little thought to football until eighth grade, when a football coach at his middle school saw him kicking soccer balls and asked if he might try kicking a football. “They needed bodies,” Ji says. But soon Justin became a weapon on kickoffs. He could kick the ball so high that eighth-grade return men struggled to catch it, turning normal kickoffs into turnover opportunities for his team. Still, Justin thought his future was in hockey, where he played everything but goalie. (His older brother Eric, who now attends medical school at Emory, was the goalie in the family.) Justin came by his love of ice sports honestly. His grandfather played hockey. His dad and aunt were figure skaters. His uncle was a speed skater.
In middle school, a typical weekday for Justin involved school from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. followed by practices for various sports until about 9 p.m. Then he did his homework, slept and started over. Weekends, depending on the season, could include eight or nine games. Ji would shuttle Justin to every practice and game, and the elder Yoon always had a list of items Justin could improve upon. “Why is he yelling at me?” Justin would ask himself then. He understands why now. “He had a goal in mind for me and my brother,” Justin says, “and that was to get us to college.” Justin believes the pressure his father put on him to succeed growing up forged a mental toughness that has helped Justin deal with the emotional swings that come with kicking. “I’m so grateful for everything he’s done,” Justin says. “That’s where my mental state comes from. He showed me that way.”
Justin left Nashville to attend high school at Milton Academy in Milton, Mass. He thought the education and the hockey program would lead him to the Beanpot Tournament, not the College Football Playoff. Buried on the fourth line on the hockey team, Justin realized his future might not involve a puck. So he concentrated more on his kicking—with a push from Ji. “It wasn’t like his grades were going to get him to school,” Ji says. “I was like, ‘You’re going to have to kick your way to college*.” His coaches at Milton gave him ample time and space to develop a technique that worked for him, and Yoon became adept at self-diagnosing flaws in his form. His coaches also helped spread the word to colleges that Milton had an excellent kicker. By the time Yoon chose Notre Dame over Stanford, Harvard and Texas A&M, he was ready to play right away.
*Justin had the grades to get into plenty of good schools. Ji is referring to schools such as Stanford, Harvard and Notre Dame.
A four-year starter at Notre Dame who just earned a bachelor’s in Finance, Yoon has made 58 of 72 career field goal attempts. He’s made 20 of 21 kicks inside 40 yards in the past two seasons. That consistency from common field goal distances makes Yoon incredibly valuable. Notre Dame special teams coach Brian Polian gets a lot of videos of kickers making 60-yarders on an empty practice field. But he wants to know how a kicker will perform in a situation he might see three times in a game. “That’s what I think Justin is great at,” Polian says. “We know what his outer stretches are, but he’s really, really consistent from those numbers.”
If a playoff game does come down to a kick, it most likely will come from one of those more common distances. Greg Huegel, Yoon’s Clemson counterpart, has the most experience in pressure-packed games. Huegel has kicked in two national title games, and the neutral-site environment in the Cotton Bowl won’t compare to the hostility he faced as a sophomore when he drilled a 46-yarder at Florida State to give his team a brief lead late in the fourth quarter. (The Tigers still would need a Deshaun Watson-led touchdown drive to win.)
Meanwhile, in the Orange Bowl, Oklahoma’s Austin Seibert is another four-year starter with playoff experience and major records to his name (the Oklahoma and Big 12 scoring marks). Seibert also missed a 33-yarder that would have beaten Army in regulation on Sept. 22, but he has made all 12 of his field goal attempts since.
The issue for all of the kickers in the playoff is a small sample size caused by the fact that their offenses were so good at scoring touchdowns. Nowhere is that more evident than Alabama, which has been good at practically everything except place kicking in recent years. Alabama played for the national title after the 2015, ’16 and ’17 seasons—and won the title in two of those seasons—but the Tide ranked 82nd, 57th and 90th in the nation in field goal percentage in those seasons. This year, Alabama ranks 69th (72.2%) following a Week 3 depth chart swap. The Tide had hoped Temple graduate transfer Austin Jones would solve their kicking woes, but Jones was replaced by redshirt freshman Joseph Bulovas after Jones missed two extra points in a 57–7 win against Arkansas State on Sept. 8.
Merely talking about missing extra points and field goals can haunt kickers. But Notre Dame’s Yoon learned on the field and at the rink that perfection is unattainable. Misses happen. So dwelling on the possibility is fruitless. “The kicking game has such a big mental aspect. You want to be perfect. Everyone wants to be perfect,” Yoon says. “You get to a point where not everything is going to go your way. When adversity hits, what are you going to do? What is your mindset going to be?”
Ji lived with Justin this past season in South Bend. “He wanted me to cook for him,” Ji jokes. “He likes a lot of Korean meals—very spicy ones.” Ji says he doesn’t talk to Justin much about making kicks anymore. By this point, kicking is Justin’s job. And Justin understands better than anyone how to deal with the pitfalls of his particular vocation. “You hit walls. It’s going to happen,” Justin says. “But what are you going to do when it happens? Are you just going to sulk and let yourself be overcome by it? Or are you going to make a difference?”
If the Cotton Bowl does come down to a kick, Justin knows he can’t think of it as a kick to lift the Irish to the national title game. It can only be another kick. All he can do is stare at the spot below holder Henry’s hands and wait for the snap. And if he does his job, he won’t be “just the kicker.”
He'll be a legend.