Brian Kelly liked the effort of his next tight ends in against Georgia Tech.
But Notre Dame needs more from the position without Durham Smythe, lost for the year following shoulder and knee surgeries.
Tyler Luatua, Alize Jones and Nic Weishar all featured last weekend, offering a mixed bag for the Irish offense. Jones started but Luatua logged the most snaps, working 34 plays compared to Jones’ 19 snaps and Weishar’s 17. Luatua was on the field for all four of Notre Dame’s touchdowns while Jones and Weishar were involved in just one, the one-yard touchdown run by CJ Prosise early in the fourth quarter.
Including on that score, Notre Dame worked a three tight end set for the first time this season against Georgia Tech. The formation netted four carries for five yards overall.
Where the Smythe loss hurt most was the two tight end set, which Kelly called often against Texas and Virginia, usually in a Smythe-Luatua combination.
In the opener, Kelly used “12 personnel” to produce 25 carries, 112 yards rushing and one score to go with 3-of-3 passing by Malik Zaire for 87 yards and two touchdowns. Against Virginia the two tight end set waned, reduced to eight carries for 54 yards and 0-of-3 passing. That dropped even further against Georgia Tech. The Irish went two tight ends just once in the entire game, a five-yard Prosise run.
“We got at times good play and we got at times poor play,” Kelly said. “And the poor play was assignment poor. It wasn't technique or effort poor. Effort's great. We think that they are all going to be really good players.”
Jones tops that list with the freshman’s growing pains now on public display. He was targeted five times against Georgia Tech and finished with three catches, 19 yards and a lost fumble. Weishar was targeted once and Luatua wasn’t at all.
Jones has struggled in the run game, where picking up blocks has been a challenge. That included a slip screen to Will Fuller in the first quarter when Jones missed his block so badly that he ran into Mike McGlinchey. Jones logged 14 snaps in the first half, including that lost fumble just before halftime. He played just five snaps in the second half, three of which were in goal line alongside Weishar and Luatua.
“We needed to get (Jones) involved and we are trying to accelerate his growth,” Kelly said. “There's a lot going on there, a lot of mistakes. But he's a great kid and he's swimming a little bit right now but we just think his athletic ability supersedes some of the mistakes he's making right now.”
The former five-star recruit figures to rise to the top of Notre Dame’s depth chart eventually. That pace of progress would be fine with a healthy Smythe. Without Notre Dame’s only true two-way tight end, the Irish need Jones to develop ahead of schedule, with UMass representing a solid chance to speed things up.
“We are just going to keep force feeding him, going to keep playing him, because he cares,” Kelly said. “And he'll come back this week and he'll clean up some of the mistakes he made, and we are going to keep getting the football because he can make plays for us.”
Luatua was Notre Dame’s most consistent blocking tight end by far against Georgia Tech, throwing key blocks on Prosise’s 17-yard score in the first half and his 91-yard score in the fourth quarter. Of Luatua’s 34 snaps, 21 were runs. Jones’ snaps were split 8-11 in run-pass. Weishar’s snaps were 9-8 in run-pass.
Regardless of which tight end develops most in the coming weeks, Kelly needs all three to take a step forward. As Notre Dame has shown, numbers at a position don’t always equal quality depth.
“We are living right now with some mistakes and looking at it and going, as long as we coach it and teach it and get better week-to-week, we should be really good at the position,” Kelly said. “But it hurt us at certain times in the game that we had some young guys out there making some mistakes.”