In the midst of winter conditioning and seven weeks away from its first spring practice, the Notre Dame football program faces scores of questions after the loss of NFL talent, dozens of long-time contributors, and immeasurable veteran leadership. Irish Illustrated examines the 12 most relevant questions to be answered over rest of the winter, spring, summer, and ultimately into the fall.
QUESTION #2 – RETURN OF TIGHT END U?
During Notre Dame’s run to 12-0 in 2012, tight end Tyler Eifert was targeted a team-high *98 times by Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Tommy Rees. (For the sake of comparison, All American wide receiver Will Fuller was targeted 102 times last season.)
Previously Eifert broke program records at the position catching 63 passes for 803 yards in 2011 and in his rookie season of 2010, the Fort Wayne, Ind.-product combined with future NFL Pro Bowler Kyle Rudolph to secure 55 receptions for 680 yards and five scores.
During the 2013 season, the tight end duo that replaced Eifert, Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack, combined to secure eight touchdown receptions – tied with Ken MacAfee & Co. for the most by the tight end position at the program since 1958.
In 2014, Koyack participated in more snaps – in excess of 1,000 – than anyone on the roster.
Conversely, in 2015, Notre Dame’s tight end quintet of Durham Smythe (3 starts/games), Aliz’e Jones (5 starts/13 games), Chase Hounshell (3 starts/13), Tyler Luatua (3 starts/10 games) and Nic Weishar (2 starts/12 games) produced the following middling results:
• 43 targets
• 20 receptions
• 12 first downs
• Four gains in excess of 10 yards, including two in excess of 30 – all by Jones
• Two drops
• Two pass interference penalties drawn (both by Jones)
• 1 touchdown (Smythe on a fake field goal)
More like Tight End, P.U. – but don’t expect a repeat of such scuffles in 2016.
A (VIABLE) 12 PACKAGE
Though there’s no proven entity, the top trio among Notre Dame’s potential tight end quintet for 2016 (all of the competitors listed above could technically return) possesses enough playmaking ability and football acumen to elicit envy from opposing staffs.
- A five-star prospect and athlete in Aliz’e Jones
- A four-star prospect and tight end on the rise (pre-injury last September) in Durham Smyth
- A four-star prospect and record-breaking pass catcher in Nic Weishar.
Broken down by category, each stands at least six-foot-four (and each shrunk post-National Signing Day, imagine that…), with Smythe as the best blocker and best all around player at present; Jones the fastest and quickest, Weishar the best natural pass catcher and arguably the quickest out of his break; and, well, you’d get a three-way argument as to who possesses the best pair of hands.
Potential sixth-year senior Chase Hounshell showed promise as an inline blocker following his move from the defensive line last spring while junior Tyler Luatua ended 2015 in the mix as a blocker as well. (For more on Luatua, join the conversation at our Four Horsemen Lounge, http://mbd.scout.com/mb.aspx?s=109&f=1052&t=14485891 here.)
But in terms of imposing one’s will at the line of scrimmage, there’s no Dave Casper or Irv Smith in the bunch – and as a result, Notre Dame’s short-yardage running game reflected that lack of blocking ballast last fall – but a return to the Kelly-era preference of a reliable, productive “12 Package” should be the minimum expectation in 2016.
A DYNAMIC DUO…OR TRIO?
Smythe’s return from multiple September surgeries (knee and shoulder) during Fiesta Bowl preparations allowed the Irish coaching staff and players to offer a truth that in-season film reviews illustrated all along – the Irish offense was predictable in its employment of tight ends.
“We’ve had to all year do things with personnel to try and hide what sort of plays we’re coming in with,” offered Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer, “But with a guy like Durham you can run absolutely anything with him. It (forces) the defensive coordinator to be on his toes trying to figure out what we’re trying to do rather than bringing in different personnel for different plays that maybe defensive coordinators are able to pick up on different tendencies.”
Though Jones’ preternatural athleticism and ability to stretch a defense downfield immediately catches the eye of fans and media, it’s Smythe who enters 2016 with the inside track to every down playing time.
“Throughout my career here I’ve really tried to be a guy that can provide some consistency, whether it’s through the run game, the passing game…anywhere,” said Smythe. “When you’re in the red zone, you’re trying to keep the defense guessing. Running with power (vs.) passing over the top and you want to rely on someone that can bring some consistency and I think I can (provide it).”
In congress with Jones and a potential red zone weapon in Weishar, Smythe and the Irish tight ends are poised to rank as the offense’s most improved position group next fall.
Which begs the question: will a preponderance of two tight end sets again become the norm in 2016?