Brian Kelly had just one logical answer.
Asked about the next evolution of Notre Dame’s offense heading into the bye week, the Irish head coach pointed straight at the position that’s carved out a national reputation during the past decade but hasn’t lived up to it this season.
“I think a lot of it is probably just continue to mature at the quarterback position,” Kelly said. “I think some of it had a little bit to do with the tight end position and we need to be a little bit better on the perimeter with our tight end blocking.”
Tight end has been a first thought in Notre Dame’s offense under Kelly. It’s been an afterthought this season as injury and inexperience have conspired against a position where the Irish seemed to have an endless supply of NFL talent. They won’t this season and might not for the next few as Alize’ Jones, Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua develop while Durham Smythe heals.
That group should remain in tact for the next two seasons.
“We all have our roles, we all know our roles and I think we’re all doing pretty well so far,” Weishar said. “There’s been times, ‘Wow, I’m playing USC right now,’ which is pretty surreal. I think as far as the reps go, coach (Scott) Booker has done a pretty nice jobs spreading out the reps for all the four tight ends.”
Chase Hounshell rounds out the rotation but like Luatua has been used almost exclusively in blocking roles.
Jones leads the position with 14 targets, nine catches and 117 yards. Weishar is next at three catches for 19 yards.
To put that in perspective, Notre Dame’s top two tight ends have combined to average 49.4 catches per year during Kelly’s five seasons. The Jones-Weishar combination is on track for 22 receptions this fall.
Considering the extreme youth that’s hit the tight end position – even with a healthy Smythe – some drop was expected. Now it’s on Jones and Weishar to narrow that gap in the passing game while Luatua and Hounshell stick to the ground.
For Weishar, his growth has gone as expected, moving from red-shirt to red-shirt freshman this off-season while trying to bulk up his wiry 6-foot-4, 241-pound frame.
“The game experience has been huge for me,” he said. “Fall camp was great to be able to get the reps and obviously games are different. It’s been good to be out there, get a lot of plays in. That’s my goal to keep getting better each week.”
Notre Dame’s offense could use it, with tight end now the fifth option in the passing game. Even Jones’ biggest play, that 37-yard catch last weekend against USC, came off a trick play pass from Torii Hunter Jr. When it comes to DeShone Kizer, the tight end has been overlooked much more than it’s been targeted.
Understanding the offense better should help change that trend. That’s where Smythe can still impact the offense, even while recovering from shoulder and knee surgeries.
“Durham’s been great.” Weishar said. “Obviously he was the guy with the most reps and the most game experience. He just provides little tips, what do you do if a defensive lineman gets his hands in your face, things like that. He’s just been a great overall friend and mentor to all the tight ends.”