When Brian Kelly looks at his tight end depth chart he sees a blur.
But when Notre Dame’s head coach evaluates the entire position, that’s when clarity comes.
The strength of the program for more than a decade, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year at tight end without a dominant player. The Irish don’t have a singular star in Durham Smythe, Nic Weishar, Alize Jones, Chase Hounshell or Tyler Luatua. Yet it appears the tight end depth chart’s value may be more than the sum of its parts.
Following Notre Dame’s final practice of training camp, staged inside the stadium, Kelly said the Irish not only have the material for two tight end sets, they have the ingredients to go further.
“I think we can use three,” Kelly said. “I think at the end of the day we can really do some things with those tight ends to keep teams off balance.”
That wasn’t the case last season when Notre Dame burned out Ben Koyack and left Smythe and Luatua basically on the shelf. It’s worth noting Kelly was high on both at this time last year too, and Smythe wasn’t even targeted until November.
Smythe has been slowed for the past week by a hamstring injury, meaning Notre Dame’s other four tight ends have been granted access to the lineup.
They’ve shined. Weishar has been a camp revelation in the passing game. Not to be outdone, Jones was arguably Notre Dame’s most impressive player during Friday’s practice, at least the portion open to the media.
“I think that’s still probably one position a little bit still uncertain,” Kelly said. “Which is OK because we know what we’ve got with Durham once he gets 100 percent healthy. Tyler and Nic and Chase and then there’s Alize, we feel really lucky there to have that kind of depth.”
While tight ends coach Scott Booker protested niche roles during Media Day, Kelly admitted it’s an inevitability with the skill sets available. The head coach has compared Hounshell to a fullback. He’s likened Jones to a wide receiver. That variety is enough to give Booker different buttons to push based on game plans.
That should mean Notre Dame won’t have another one-man depth chart, which wore down Koyack by November.
“That was the outlier rather than the rule,” Booker said. “Our charge in the tight end room is to have multiple guys ready to play for us and that’s what we’re gonna do.”
What may intrigue Kelly most is the versatility a Smythe-Jones duo could offer. He said Smythe and Jones can be on the field at the same time but that it would still be a spread formation. The Irish haven’t had that combo of athleticism since Koyack and Troy Niklas worked together two years ago.
Imagine Smythe and Jones lining up attached at the line of scrimmage – meaning in a three-point stance flanking each offensive tackle – then Zaire motioning both outside the numbers with linebackers forced to follow.
“Alize is a matchup nightmare,” Kelly said. “We’ve got some really good flexibility.”
And that could stretch opposing defenses beyond their limits.