Spring Questions: Tight Ends

A quartet of questions regarding Notre Dame's tight end foursome heading into spring ball 2015.

Below is the third of 11 columns previewing head coach Brian Kelly's sixth spring session in South Bend.

The questions are pertinent. The initial answers? Well, they're one man's opinion -- One man using logic and recent history as his guide.

1. HOW CLOSE IS DURHAM SMYTHE?
Not to starting, that seems set in stone (or at least penned on paper?) at spring's outset, but how close is the redshirt-sophomore to cementing his spot as an every-down player as did his Kelly-era predecessors?

This is less a pressing question about Smythe's skill set than it is a logical question of personnel usage. Possessing a squad replete with returning, experienced wide receiver talent, could Kelly favor a true spread set rather than be tied to the tight end as the head coach's previous Irish offenses have been?

Notre Dame was reliant on the constant presence of a tight end for good reason in past years as Kyle Rudolph/Tyler Eifert (2010); Eifert (2011); Eifert/Niklas (2012); Niklas/Koyack (2013); and Koyack (2014), respectively, were the best or most trusted skill position options. Smythe's efforts this spring -- pitted against a collection of wide receivers looking to augment standout Will Fuller -- will help determine if he fends off perimeter players for a lead role.

Will Smythe fare well enough as an in-line blocker to allow Kelly and new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, Jr., to consider pursuing the power game as a key component of the offense? (Kelly's Game MVP of the Music City Bowl was Ben Koyack -- who caught one pass.)'

If Smythe emerges as a trusted player this spring, there's no doubt Kelly will keep the tight end in the fold more often than he favors four-wide.

2. HOW FAR AWAY ARE MIKE HEUERMAN AND NIC WEISHAR?
Beset by injuries since September of his freshman season, Heuerman is the lone member of the 2013 recruiting class not to appear in a college contest. Tight ends coach (former tight ends coach?) Scott Booker noted last fall that the speedy Heuerman was at his best when he could "run to green."

In other words, he'll go get it, but his frame (Heuerman resembles a college basketball guard more so than a football tight end) doesn't afford him the ability to mix it up inside. A willing blocker and an athlete *self-described as "naturally strong," it seems putting on weight through myriad injuries has held him back.

Weishar received an expected redshirt season as a freshman tight end last fall. He's in no way behind schedule, but it's relevant to note that this spring session is crucial for the downfield threat as he likely needs to impress the staff in order to fend off incoming pass-catching prospect Aliz'e Jones on the fall depth chart.

Notre Dame'd 2015 fall camp will feature a trio of tight ends that might be ready to move the chains through the air but not necessarily by popping pads. Only one from that trio is thus likely to carve a niche.

(*Related note: Heuerman is an outstanding interview subject. If he becomes a major player, he'll likely be muzzled by media relations.)

3. CAN TYLER LUATUA EVOLVE INTO A THREAT?
Better put, has he, or can he evolve into a viable option in the passing game?

Luatua won't set himself apart from any of his tight end competitors as a pass-catcher, but it would aid the offense greatly if the trunk-legged lead blocker could emerge as at least a safety valve in two tight end sets. Otherwise his presence signifies a run, and announcing to the defense that a power run is about to unfold only works if an offense is fully committed to being the tougher team on every snap.

Luatua's 2015 playing time seems tied to two determining factors:

1.) His improvement as a blocker
2.) The talents of quarterback Malik Zaire and the possibility that Kelly will embrace the power approach utilized in the season-ending win over LSU.
3.) The potential ascent of quarterback Everett Golson. If Golson is great this spring, what offensive approach is favored? Which personnel grouping becomes the trusted package?

Luatua will have a role in the running game, but more so than most players on the squad, he's not the only entity that will define how large that role will be.

4. WHERE DOES ALIZ'E JONES FIT?
Yeah, I'm cheating, but it's hard not to look ahead to summer workouts and August camp when the team's top freshman pledge joins the fray, because his recruitment and expected emergence will have a domino effect.

That is, the eligibility of the 2015 quintet -- Smythe (3), Heuerman (3), Luatua (3), Weishar (4), and Jones (4) -- suggests the five-some might not return intact for 2016 and beyond.



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