We’ve heard it before.
Notre Dame has a bunch of wide receivers or running backs or tight ends that can contribute in the upcoming football season.
Then – due in part of Notre Dame’s challenging early-season schedule – the offensive menu tightens up, the frontrunners get the vast majority of the reps, and all those promising prospects that flashed their ability during training camp are relegated to positioning themselves for playing time…next year.
By playing three Power 5 conference schools out of the gate, the Irish may be deluding themselves into thinking all five can contribute on a regular basis in September. Tight ends Durham Smythe, Tyler Luatua, Nic Weishar, Alize’ Jones and Chase Hounshell all feel good about playing a role on the 2015 team.
- Smythe won the job in the spring. He is considered the most versatile of the group in terms of combining receiver and blocking talents, and now that he’s overcome a hamstring issue, he’ll be the first in line.
- Luatua dropped about 15 pounds since last year and believes he can be more than just a blocking tight end. When the Irish want to run power, however, Luatua is the top option.
- Weishar was impressive during the five open practices to the media, particularly as a red-zone receiver. The former prep wideout also has downfield ability and offers the best combination of skills outside of Smythe.
- Jones is part-wide receiver, part-tight end. His speed and hands are his top assets; strength/power will have to come down the road.
- Hounshell is a chemistry guy who has overcome injuries, is a physical blocker and catches the football better than you’d expect from a former defensive end. He is, however, the most logical “odd man out” in the tight end equation.
The challenge is to not only maximize their varied skills, but to offer an all-encompassing package that puts pressure on the defense in such a way that it can’t combat everything the position throws at it.
“It’s situational to a large degree for some of those guys,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “I don’t think you’re going to see Chase running down the middle of the field and I don’t think you’re going to see Alize’ doing a lot of dirty work. We’ve established what their strengths are and we’ll enter the game that way.”
Asked about the possibility of a two-tight end set, Kelly didn’t stop there, which was a sentiment echoed by several of the tight ends themselves.
“I think we can use three,” Kelly said. “Right now you can use Alize’ Jones as a wide receiver. He has that kind of elite speed. You can put two tight ends in the game and be in a spread formation with Durham and Alize’.
“We have some really good flexibility. We can really do some things with those tight ends to keep teams off-balance.”
Part of the flexibility the tight end position offers has been emphasized at least in part due the arrival of Mike Sanford as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. Sanford came from his alma mater, Boise State, where he served in his first year as a coordinator in 2014.
It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that Sanford was on the Stanford staff from 2011-13. The Cardinal utilized three tight ends extensively – sometimes simultaneously -- in Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, who combined for 85 catches, 1,356 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2011. That’s one touchdown every 4.25 catches!
“There’s certainly a sharing of ideas as it relates to how we can utilize those tight ends,” acknowledged Kelly when asked about applicable concepts Sanford might have brought with him from his Stanford days. “We were able to share some common philosophy with some formations.”
The differences between the two programs’ offenses – Stanford a power running team with a controlled passing game compared to Notre Dame’s spread attack – could make the Irish even more unpredictable with their use of the tight ends.
“Without giving away any trade secrets, Stanford was a power team,” Kelly said. “They were huddling, so that’s where it will be a little different. We would like to run power, but we like to do some other things.
“More than anything else, what you’ll see from Coach Sanford and what we’re doing with the tight ends is utilizing them whether we go fast, whether we go slow, or whether we tempo or not.”
How it all will shake out for the Irish at the tight end position in 2015 remains to be seen. But the possibilities are vast. So is the talent.
“We clearly think we have more than one of them.”