Links in the Chain

Graduated senior tight end Ben Koyack played more than 1,000 snaps for Brian Kelly's 2014 Irish. His replacement(s) offer varied skills but share a common trait -- they're unproven.

This spring, a quintet of tight end competitors will vie for a spot to continue Notre Dame's *12-year continuous chain, and a more than four-decade continual string, of standouts for the program at the position.

They'll be joined by a sixth this summer, five-star prospect Aliz'e Jones, he of the wide receiver skill set captured in an enviable six-foot-five frame.

As the Irish approach the midway point of spring ball 2015, there's a leader in the tight end clubhouse, but the door to playing time and crucial roles remains ajar.

"I think Durham Smythe is someone that we feel really confident about as a pass-catcher in our offense," said Kelly of the junior from Belton, Texas. "It's been really more about his consistency in the in-line blocking for us.

"(Sophomore) Tyler Luatua gives us that second tight end that has a little bit more strength and size, but he has not established himself as the same kind of pass-catcher as Durham."

Both Smythe and Luatua got their feet wet last season with the latter playing extensively against LSU as part of the team's run-first attack. Luatua logged more time than did Smythe overall but it was clear Smythe would have been the No. 1 tight end had Koyack been lost to injury.

Both have a competitor on their heels because of similar traits.

"(Redshirt-freshman) Nic Weishar continues to get bigger and stronger," said Kelly. "We know what he can do -- he's got real good ball skills but we have to continue to work on his blocking. But he's up to 240-something pounds so he's getting there.

"We're also working (former defensive end) Chase Hounshell there, but there's a bit of a transition," Kelly continued of the potential fifth-year senior. "He wants to go off and attack like he's a defensive linemen and there has to be a little more patience there. I think he might be somebody that can help us as well.

"I think Durham Smythe, you start there. He gets a bulk of the work and I think our second tight end, Luatua, and (we're) trying to find the third."

Not mentioned by Kelly was junior Mike Heuerman, the lone member of the 2013 freshman class yet to see the field. A 2013 early enrollee, Heuerman has been setback by injuries (hernia/shoulder 2014; back 2015). Should he make headway on the depth chart it would be at the expense of Weishar or the incoming Jones as a player -- to borrow a line from his position coach Scott Booker -- does well "running to green space."

(Though it's clear improvement as a blocker remains paramount to his development, Booker confirmed Heuerman's own assertion that he's "naturally strong.")

With a quintet of tight ends in tow and one prime time prospect en route, the chain at Tight End U is unlikely to be broken anytime soon.


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