It’s seems like an unorthodox way to employ the personnel at a position.
One spot, sometimes two, nearly 1,000 snaps from scrimmage, and five bodies in which to distribute those snaps.
And Ben Koyack got them all.
Okay, not all of them. Freshman Tyler Luatua was used as a blocking tight end, joining Koyack in game action early in the season when the Irish were attempting to establish a rushing attack, and then again when Notre Dame devised a ground-based game plan for LSU in the Music City Bowl.
Otherwise, it was Koyack’s world and the rest of the Irish tight ends were just living in it…or on the periphery.
“I’m a tight end coach. I’d love three-, four-, five-tight end sets,” smiled Notre Dame’s Scott Booker. “Whatever it takes to be successful. Whatever it takes for us to win is what Coach (Brian) Kelly, Coach (Mike) Denbrock, Coach (Mike) Sanford and the offensive coaches are going to do.”
The only thing that’s certain is that Koyack won’t be around to take 99.9 percent of the tight end snaps again. The veteran Koyack is out of eligibility and has put his wares on display for the NFL at the Senior Bowl, the NFL Scouting Combine and Notre Dame’s Pro Day Tuesday.
Snaps in 2015 will be distributed among the following prospects:
• Junior Durham Smythe, who enters the 2015 season with three years of eligibility remaining and is the most well-rounded/ready of the prospects;
• Luatua, a highly-touted prospect out of California who showed flashes of developing into a powerful in-line/H-back blocker in ‘14;
• Nic Weishar, more of a wide receiver-turned-tight end who preserved a year of eligibility as a freshman a year ago;
• Mike Heuerman, an undersized junior with three years of eligibility and a litany of injuries that have curtailed his development and physical growth;
• Chase Hounshell, the most surprising name in the bunch as a potential fifth-year senior who was a banged up defensive lineman during most of his previous four years in the program;
• Alize Jones, the incoming freshman with length and athleticism that had most schools drooling over this five-star prospect before he chose Notre Dame, where he had attended summer camp three years running.
“We want all-around guys, so when we recruit guys, we’re not saying, ‘You’re a blocker, you’re a receiving tight end,’” Booker explained. “We want all-around tight ends, and if you can handle that, you’re going to be able to play at the University of Notre Dame.”
Koyack fit the bill last year. Like a glove. Maybe not quite as good of a fit as the versatile Tyler Eifert, whose blocking skills eventually approached his pass-catching prowess. Yet when it doubt last year, Koyack got the rep, and there usually wasn’t much doubt.
A total of 31 passes were snatched by Irish tight ends in ’14, and Koyack caught 96.7 percent of them – 30 out of 31. The other catch was by Smythe, the presumed heir apparent to the pass-catching tradition that is embedded in Notre Dame football.
“Durham has done everything that we’ve asked him to do as far as his development,” said Booker of the 6-foot-4 ½, 245-pounder. “I like where he is right now.
“I feel like he can be an all-around tight end, an in-line blocker, a split-out guy…He can catch the ball and be a receiving threat down the field. He’s just an all-around guy, and I’ve seen some toughness out of him this spring, which I was pleased with and thought I would.”
While Smythe looks to be the most accomplished of the prospects, Luatua – trimmed down 10 pounds to 250 pounds on his 6-foot-2 ½ frame – is the most consistent and tenacious blocker.
“Tyler knew in order to be an all-around tight end, he had to slim down a little bit,” Booker said. “Now, going from 260 to 250, he still has plenty of bulk to be a solid tight end for us, both in-line and out on the perimeter.
“The weight he is now probably won’t be the weight he plays at against Texas. He’s still going to be gaining weight. But I like where he is with his body right now. He’s gotten stronger in the weight room, and we’re excited about what he’s done.”
Smythe and Luatua show the makings of an effective two-man tandem.
“In December, Tyler was what we needed for LSU,” Booker said. “Against LSU, we felt like two tight ends would help us win and we won. Now, both Durham and Tyler are blocking well.”
The most likely to factor in to the equation this spring might very well be Hounshell as Weishar continues to make the transition and Heuerman maintains a seemingly never-ending battle to hold the weight necessary to be an effective blocking tight end.
“When you have a fifth-year guy coming back, helping any way he can on offense and special teams, it’s a new thing for him to learn, but we’ve had this happen before with Troy Niklas switching from defense to offense,” said Booker of Hounshell.
“It’s a process. We didn’t expect him to be able to run our whole offense after 15 practices. But what we did expect him to do is give us everything he’s got and play fast, physical football, and he’s been able to do that.”
Weishar likely needs more time in the weight room, although at 6-foot-4, 241 pounds, he has the frame and the makings of just what the Irish are looking for at tight end long-term.
“When you have a kid coming in as a tight end, a lot of times those guys don’t play in-line in high school,” Booker said. “So we’ve got to train them and teach them the techniques. It doesn’t happen overnight.
“Nick is a willing kid. He’s a tough kid from down the street in Chicago. We’re excited about him and look forward to seeing his progress with Coach Longo.”
Jones, the standout from Las Vegas, is still a couple months away from joining the program. Booker will not get ahead of himself with high school accolades, particularly with five candidates on campus this spring. Yet there’s no denying Jones’ potential.
“Athleticism,” summarized Booker in one word. “We’ve all seen (Jones) can run. I saw him come to our camp as a freshman, a sophomore, a junior and I’m just excited to be around him. I’ve seen him grow up from a skinny freshman that didn’t have all the coordination to someone who’s considered by you guys, the experts, to be the No. 1 tight end.”
But for now, there is one clear-cut leading candidate to take the bulk of the snaps at tight end, and that’s Smythe, who ironically chose Notre Dame over Stanford when new Irish offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford was recruiting for the Cardinal.
“He has good ball skills, adjusts to the ball in the air, and he can track the ball,” said Booker of Smythe.
“As a tight end, you’ve got guys hanging all over you as you go across the middle of the field. A lot of times the balls are out of the framework of your body because the quarterback is trying to throw the ball away from a defender. We’re not usually running by guys. We’re going to have guys on us, so you’ve got to be able to adjust.”
In addition to possessing a noteworthy tight end frame, Smythe can claim another asset that will help him in his journey to primary tight end receiving target: a passion for the game.
“Durham loves football,” Booker said. “He likes to compete, and that’s an important thing you need to be successful. Now it’s our job to get him there so by September, he’s better.
“It’s not just physically, but it’s mentally and emotionally, being out there and being that guy at Notre Dame. It’s different. It’s different than any other place.”
Different as one in a thousand.