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Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Miami v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29: Durham Smythe #80 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish leaps for a touchdown but would go on to fumble the ball during the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium on October 29, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Miami 30-27. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

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With five tight ends—and a sixth coming in the summer—depth was not a concern at the position entering the spring. That peace of mind is never a poor starting point. Two months of spring practice later, and the possible uses of that depth may be more intriguing than ever.

Only fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe can claim an abundance of playing time, despite the position’s depth. A year ago Smythe pulled in nine passes for 112 yards and four touchdowns. The production may not have been overwhelming, but Smythe was a clear red zone threat and once he opted to return for one final season with the Irish, he was the presumptive starter.

Rising junior Alizé Jones (now Alizé Mack, but this is the section discussing views of two months ago, so here and only here, he remains Jones) posed as a theoretical threat to Smythe’s starting position, but only in the abstract. Jones missed 2016 due to academic issues. He had not been seen since he caught 13 passes for 190 yards in his freshman campaign.

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Whether Smythe or Jones led the way for the Notre Dame tight ends, offensive coordinator Chip Long’s arrival seemed to assure more than one would be involved.

“[Long] utilizes two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move toward with the great depth that we have at that position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said when introducing his offseason hires.

Indeed Long does prefer two tight end sets and frequently involves them in the passing game. At Memphis last season, Long’s tight ends totaled 36 catches for 423 yards and five touchdowns. Notre Dame’s roster of tight ends has combined career totals of 32 catches for 403 yards and six touchdowns.

Mack—sorry for that confusion, but dedication to the gimmick necessitated the usage of Jones through that first portion—received praise and only praise throughout the spring. A sampling:

  • “He’s a perfect fit,” Long said the day before the spring finale. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.”
  • “He can do all the things that any tight end in the country can do,” Kelly said. “What has changed Alizé is he’s organized in his thoughts and his day-to-day life. … He knows what he’s doing. He’s really got his nose in the playbook and I just think he’s going to be a really successful player.”

At this point, Kelly was reminded of Mack’s 6-foot-4½ frame holding 245 pounds, though the inexperienced junior still possesses noticeable speed.

“I don’t know how you’re going to defend him,” Kelly replied. “There’s not a safety or a linebacker—if you start spreading him out, maybe a corner can get a hand in there and deflect the ball, and maybe he doesn’t run the route quite the way a receiver would, but he’s going to be very difficult to defend.”

RELATED READING: Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game (April 21)

If Mack presents such matchup problems, does he rise to the top of the depth chart, supplanting Smythe and not giving the two heralded freshmen (early enrollee Brock Wright and incoming Cole Kmet) a chance to catch him? Not necessarily.

Smythe is a known commodity. His red zone presence is proven, as is Smythe’s reliability. He will show up to practice. He will be eligible. He will be a good teammate.

This is not to say Mack won’t, but first, he has to be. One encouraging spring does not repair all the reputational damage done by a season spent in academic purgatory, nor should it.

Then again, it may not matter. Long often plays two tight ends. Both Mack and Smythe should see plenty of action.

“They’ve also seen the benefit of playing in this offense, what it does for them, the way it kind of showcases their skillset,” Long said. “They’ve done a really nice job.”

Smythe could, for example, line up attached, appearing as a lineman on the outside of either tackle. In many respects, he would present as your traditional tight end. Meanwhile, Mack could—again, this is as much theory as anything until Sept. 2, a mere 122 days away—line up detached, akin to a slot receiver. Suddenly Notre Dame would have passing threats with run blocking builds. Admittedly, this possibility only poses as a threat if both block viably.

“You can kind of see Alizé mimicking what [Smythe] does, and it’s helped him tremendously,” Long said. “That’s what’s been so impressive to me. I thought [blocking] was going to be a little bit of a battle, but [Mack has] really embraced it and ran with it, and he’s one of our most physical players out there right now.”

This creation of options is what gives Long’s offense the ability to confound defenses. If both Mack and Smythe run their routes cleanly, display good hands and block aggressively in the run game, Long will have the ability to switch between run packages and pass packages without actually switching personnel at all.

Seniors Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua provide worthwhile depth, more than the nominal distinction offered much of the roster. If needed to fill in amid a short injury, neither would hinder Long’s playcalling.

With a spring under his belt, Wright could see playing time this fall. Long certainly did not rule it out heading into the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been out of high school for four months, but he’s one of the hardest workers,” Long said. “… His potential is through the roof. He’s a great kid, a great worker. [It’s] been a lot of fun seeing him grow these last few weeks.

Classmate Kmet will bring the tight end grouping to an even half dozen this summer.

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