Alize Jones watched Thursday’s practice with a towel wrapped around his injured neck. Durham Smythe stood at attention to the side, his bum hamstring shelving Notre Dame’s starting tight end.
Those minor maladies opened a door for sophomore Nic Weishar, who accepted his invitation into the first team without a second thought. The Chicagoland product worked over Avery Sebastian and Drue Tranquill for touchdowns during one-on-one reps. He posted up Nyles Morgan over the middle for a contested catch.
Those reps backed up Brian Kelly’s claim before camp that Weishar ranked among the programs biggest off-season risers. Now listed at 6-foot-4, 241 pounds, the sophomore looks like he’s made the kind of physical jump that could earn him reps come fall, even when Smythe and Jones return to health this weekend.
“We knew his ability to catch the football was there,” Kelly said. “It was his in-line blocking that was going to be a question and whether he was going to be able to put on the weight necessary to compete right away.
“He had a terrific off-season putting on the weight and getting stronger, still got a ways to go, but … he’s put himself right in the mix there to play a lot for us.”
When Smythe returns the starting tight end job should still be his. But Weishar has at least put heat on Jones, the five-star recruit out of Las Vegas who had been assumed to have a lock on reps this season. Weishar muted that hype Thursday.
Regardless of who plays and how much in Notre Dame’s offense, it appears two tight ends will see the field regularly. That’s an approach the Irish employed two years ago with Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack. Kelly used it during the BCS National Championship Game season too with Niklas and first-round pick Tyler Eifert.
This season seems less of a lock for two tight ends considering the skills of Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter Jr. in camp. Even freshman C.J. Sanders, the third-team slot, has impressed. But that third receiver could give way to a second tight end if trends continue.
On top of Smythe, Weishar and Jones, Notre Dame has Tyler Luatua and Chase Hounshell in block-first roles, although the converted defensive tackle made a downfield catch on Thursday.
“We know their strengths and we’ve got some roles for each of them,” Kelly said. “Your pass catchers are Durham, Alize and Nic. So we’ve got three really good pass catchers that are guys that also have the size to block. I think we’ve got some pretty good versatility there.”
Weishar will be a big part of that.
The four-star recruit committed to Notre Dame during the spring of his junior year at Marist High School on the south side of Chicago. That meant joining a jumbled depth chart that included Smythe, Luatua and Mike Heuerman, long before Jones came on board.
Weishar gave Kelly a hint that he might be ready during bowl prep, the end of his red-shirt season. His training camp performance has been more like screaming into a bullhorn.
“We saw a little bit at the tail end of last year on scout team that he had grit and toughness,” Kelly said. “He was just a little bit light and he got thrown around and rag dolled a little bit if you will. So it was still a matter of him being able to put on the size.
“He’s been outstanding for us and he’s going to offer some more depth at the position that we didn’t think we’d have. We’ll really be able to do a lot of things with him in the offense.”