Listed as a three-star prospect by Scout, Tyler Luatua was one of the last men on board – he was the 20th verbal commitment out of 23 – in Notre Dame’s signing Class of 2014.
The soft-spoken tight end prospect out of Paramount, Calif., and La Mirada High School arrived at Notre Dame with some four-star traits, particularly in the blocking department after catching 43 passes for 594 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior and 33 passes for 412 yards and four scores as a senior.
Marked down by Scout and others because of his understated approach, Luatua impressed the Notre Dame staff from the outset of his freshman year with his physicality. Bulked up to 6-foot-2 ½, 260 pounds, he immediately became the tag-team tight end partner of Ben Koyack when the Irish went to a beefier, more run-oriented attack, which was fairly infrequently in Brian Kelly’s spread offense.
Luatua saw action in 10 of 13 games with a mid-season concussion preventing him from participating in the North Carolina, Florida State and Navy games. He did not catch a pass in 2014, but made his first career start against LSU.
Luatua develops the route-running/pass-catching aspects of his game to spell projected starting tight end Durham Smythe. He also could be part of a ‘12 personnel’ grouping – one running back, two tight ends – if the Irish, as anticipated, lean more on the rushing attack behind the offensive line, which Kelly calls the team’s No. 1 strength.
Notre Dame finds that it can run the football without a blocking tight end or a second tight end in the game, thus curtailing Luatua’s playing time and limiting him to an off-the-bench blocking role for the second straight year.
Like Ben Koyack as a freshman in 2011 and a sophomore in 2012, Luatua is caught behind a tight end with better pass-catching skills, thus preventing him from moving into the starting lineup barring an injury.
In ’11, Koyack had difficulty getting on the field as fellow Tyler Eifert was developing into an eventual first-round draft choice a season later. The only difference is that Luatua enters his second year caught behind a second different tight end deemed a better receiver – Durham Smythe – whereas Koyack was stuck behind Eifert for two seasons.
Scout did not list Luatua as the top-rated tight end in California and just the 18th best nationally. Yet he was in the mix from the outset of pre-season camp, played in 10 games and was an integral part of Notre Dame’s power running game when the Irish used it. He played up to and beyond his three-star ranking, particularly for a true freshman whose intensity and desire were questioned coming out of high school.
Luatua’s first real noticeable presence at his position came in the third game of the season against Purdue when the Irish opened in a two-tight end set. He also saw additional action against Stanford’s stout rush defense. He probably played his most impactful role, however, when the Irish made a commitment to the ground game against LSU in the Music City Bowl. Notre Dame rushed 51 times for 263 yards (5.2-yard average) in the 31-28 victory over the Tigers.
“Tyler Luatua gives us that second tight end that has a little bit more strength and size, (but) has not established himself as the same kind of pass catcher as Durham Smythe.”
-- Brian Kelly in March, 2015