The 2012-13 Notre Dame football seasons are a blur for Chase Hounshell.
Three shoulder surgeries and a stop-and-start four years after his arrival from Lake Catholic High School in Mentor, Ohio, Hounshell remains a part of the Notre Dame program, but in one of the unlikeliest places.
The former 275-pound defensive lineman is now a 255-pound tight end, and if you didn’t know that his background was in the defensive trenches, you might think he was a big blocking tight end with some natural pass-catching skills his entire career.
He looks the part, and now he hopes he gets a chance to play it, even though the notion of switching from defensive line to tight end after four years still seems a bit surreal.
“After the bowl game in Nashville, I thought that was the end,” Hounshell said. “Hang up my cleats. It had been a rough journey, a rough ride with three shoulder surgeries.
“Coach (Brian) Kelly said we had a lot of depth on the d-line and we really didn’t have a spot for me. He brought up tight end and we kind of spit-balled from there.”
Hounshell thought about it. Tight end? Really? Perhaps outside linebacker. Certainly something on the defensive side of the ball. Tight end?
“About two or three weeks after that, Coach Kelly had a meeting with the guys who have a fifth year available,” Hounshell said. “Normally, it’s pretty cut and dry. That guy’s in, that guy’s out, that guy’s transferring.
“But in my case he told me, ‘This could go either way. What do you want to do?’ I came back to him and said, ‘I’m in. I’m healthy. I’m ready to go.’”
How substantial of a role Hounshell ultimately plays for the Irish in 2015 remains to be seen. It’s tough to get snaps for five tight ends, and each of the other four – Durham Smythe, Tyler Luatua, Nic Weishar and Alize’ Jones – are all young, promising, legitimate tight end prospects.
Even if his snaps are limited at tight end, Hounshell is a part of three special teams units. He’s worked as one of the three personal protectors for punter Tyler Newsome. He’s a big kid with some maneuverability and savvy, and he’s feeling good heath-wise.
Compared to his injury-riddled past, it’s all good.
Hounshell was only healthy enough to play his freshman and seniors seasons, and in both instances – as a young player and then an older player who had endured more rehab than practice reps – his size and strength for defensive line play were compromised.
As a rookie in 2011, he played in seven games and looked like a rangy defensive lineman who could assist the cause at end or tackle. He wasn’t a dominant presence, but at 6-foot-4 ½, he had some length and versatility.
Then the shoulder injuries became a way of life. Three operations, all on the right shoulder, limited him to one game – the season-opener in 2012 – over a two-year span. Hounshell was called upon late in the 2014 season when injuries cut into Notre Dame’s defensive line depth.
The transition to tight end looks way more natural than one might anticipate with a converted defensive lineman.
“I have a relatively versatile body,” Hounshell said. “I came in freshman year at 240 pounds, and that summer, I gained 30 pounds to play at 270. I had to work for my body to be at 275. I don’t think my body wants to be that big. I’m more a slimmer, leaner 260 guy. Just based off body size, Coach Kelly wants Durham running 40 yards down the field instead of me.”
Asked what kind of theatrics he might resort to if he finds his way into the end zone with the football in his hands, Hounshell thinks about it and looks a bit perplexed.
“I’ve never really thought about scoring a touchdown,” Hounshell said. “I haven’t worked on my touchdown dance. I’m going to stick with getting a touchdown first. That would be pretty cool to get a touchdown.”
Most of his teammates, however, anticipate something creative from Hounshell if he does find paydirt this fall. Luatua called Hounshell the biggest trash-talker among the tight ends. Most know him as the guy who is quick with a quip.
“What?” says Hounshell with exaggerated astonishment when he hears about Luatua’s comment. “I can’t believe Manti would say that. I’m no such thing. I’m a straight-laced, honest guy…But I like joking around.”
He also likes being a part of what many believe can be a pretty special football team in 2015.
“I’m just excited to be a part of it,” Hounshell said. “I just want to make a contribution. I never thought it would be at tight end…but I do now.”