When Durham Smythe went down with a season-ending injury in the second game of the season against Virginia, it thrust sophomores Tyler Luatua – already an integral part as a blocking tight end – and Nic Weishar into an expanded role.
Based upon the numbers – the Irish are averaging 226.2 yards rushing per game – the two youngsters must be doing something right as predominately in-line and seal-the-edge blockers.
Brian Kelly would like to see more. In fact, when asked a couple of weeks ago what was holding the Irish ground game back in short-yardage situations, he pointed to the youth of the tight end corps.
Each game is a different challenge, the most recent a battle against Temple’s cat-quick defensive ends.
“You go into each game knowing the tendencies of each player,” said the 6-foot-4, 241-pound Weishar, who, unlike Luatua, preserved a year of eligibility in ‘14. “Whether it be a fifth-year senior or a true freshman, my mentality is the same. The techniques are different, which is why that’s such a focus for us.”
“We need to be more consistent as blockers,” said the soft-spoken 6-foot-2 ½, 255-pound Luatua. “Temple was good, but the different schemes we go against, you get more comfortable.”
Two-thirds of the way through the 2015 season, the Irish have yet to really settle in at tight end. The loss of Smythe threw the Notre Dame tight end timetable out of whack. It was skewed even further when Luatua went down with a concussion for two games, which put Weishar in a lead role with fifth-year senior Chase Hounshell’s role expanding as a blocker and freshman Aliz’e Jones putting his skills to use in the passing game.
Fitting all the pieces together has been hit and miss, particularly as it pertains to the passing game. In two games, Smythe caught nearly as many passes (two) as Weishar has in eight games (three). Luatua has appeared in 15 games for the Irish and has yet to catch a pass.
Jones has jumped to the head of the pack in the passing game with 10 catches for 162 yards, 45 of which came in a crucial late-game completion against Temple last week.
Other than Jones, their roles are dirty-work assignments.
“For me, it’s been a lot of film study of different teams,” said Weishar, who transitioned from a wide receiver position out of high school in Illinois. “Seeing how different defensive ends and linebackers play.
“In high school, being split out, I didn’t have to deal with (blocking) that much. You have to learn different techniques for what the different defensive ends are doing. It’s the most important adjustment.”
Luatua is more of a born-and-bred tight end, even though some projected him as an outside linebacker or perhaps a defensive end when he came out of La Mirada High School in California.
“I felt like I was going to be a tight end in college,” Luatua said. “I knew I wanted to be a tight end in college from my sophomore year in high school. I felt I could go further as a tight end.”
The sophomore tight ends’ progress has come in measured increments.
“I’ve been grading out pretty well,” Weishar said. “There’s a lot or room to improve. But things are getting better for me each week technique-wise, and that’s the most important aspect. Studying past guys like Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas is important for me as well.”
A comfortable, confident Luatua isn’t always easy to detect. He’s so low-key that what passes for excitement is a look to the sideline with a little subtle body language.
“Whenever I get on a block, I’m happy to run the same play,” Luatua smiled. “I’ll look at the sideline like, ‘Run it again.’
“(The coaching staff has) more confidence in me, knowing that I can make that block. I feel more comfortable being an in-line tight end since the spring. I want to be a more complete tight end. I’ve improved technique-wise, so I’m better in the passing game as well.”
Measuring the progress of the Irish tight ends from the outside looking in isn’t easy. You can’t do it by the number of pass receptions. It has to be more of a group effort, particularly as it relates to the running stats of C.J. Prosise and DeShone Kizer.
“I have to focus on what I have to do and let everything else take care of itself,” Weishar said. “If I do that and Tyler, Chase and Aliz’e do that, it’ll show up on the scoreboard.”