With the start of Notre Dame preseason camp approaching fast, we’re looking at what to expect from each unit that’ll take the field Sept. 5 under the lights against Texas.
1. Durham Smythe (Junior)
2. Tyler Luatua (Sophomore)
3. Nic Weishar (Sophomore)
3A. Alize Jones (Freshman)
3B. Chase Hounshell (Grad Student)
As a unit, these five players have one catch for seven yards at the college level (Smythe is the owner of it). So for the first time in the Brian Kelly era, Notre Dame has some uncertainty at tight end.
Smythe exited the spring as Notre Dame’s No. 1 tight end, with coaches praising his improvements as a blocker — which is the area of his game that held him back from making an impact in 2014. Kelly and tight ends coach Scott Booker like the 6-foot-4, 245 pound Smythe’s receiving ability but couldn’t trust him as a second tight end opposite Ben Koyack last year, leading to few receiving opportunities for him.
Luatua’s physical, downhill blocking skills got him on the field as a true freshman in 2014, and with an offense likely to run the ball more this fall, he’ll see plenty of snaps. If he can improve as a pass catcher, his role in the Irish offense will grow beyond being a hard-nosed blocker in two tight end sets.
The wild card here is Jones, the freshman from Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas (Ronnie Stanley’s alma mater). He has tons of potential and joined Notre Dame this summer with outstanding athleticism, but if he’s going to make an impact as a freshman — a rarity for Irish tight ends — he’ll have to have used the summer to bulk up from his listed weight of 220 pounds on signing day.
Biggest question: Will Notre Dame run more multiple tight end sets?
Notre Dame’s pass-happy 2014 offense was at least partly the product of the lack of a reliable No. 2 tight end behind Koyack. It wasn’t until the Music City Bowl that Notre Dame frequently deployed two tight ends, and it’s no coincidence its offense rushed 51 times for 263 yards against a good LSU defense in Nashville.
The Irish offense will be better off if it can have, say, Smythe and Luatua on the field at the same time fairly often this fall to help Zaire, Tarean Folston & Co. power a strong rushing attack. But Kelly won’t use a two tight end set unless he trusts both players, so it’ll be on some combination of Smythe, Luatua, Jones, Weishar and Hounshell to prove they can succeed as both blockers and receivers for this question to be answered with a yes.
Jones was rated by Rivals as a four-star recruit and the No. 4 tight end in the prep class of 2015. Playing for a powerhouse high school, he caught 76 passes for 1,501 yards with 23 touchdowns in his junior and senior years.
Notre Dame’s fluid tight end depth chart means Jones will have an opportunity to carve out some playing time this fall, but since Kelly took over in 2010, only one true freshman tight end has a tallied reception: Koyack (one catch, five yards) in 2011.
A Notre Dame tight end has caught at least 30 passes every year since 2010, when Rudolph and Eifert had 28 and 27 receptions, respectively. Having a reliable tight end would provide Zaire with a reliable safety valve who could be a frequent target, but without a proven player in this unit, there’s a chance that 30-catch streak ends this fall.
They said it
“He’s really improving. He’s taking the coaching, he’s taking the techniques and he’s doing a better job, and he’s better than where he was against LSU and to now (spring practice). And if he keeps on making those progressions from now until fall camp and then fall camp to our first game, I feel pretty good like he’ll be able to do the jobs.” — Tight ends coach Scott Booker on Durham Smythe