From riches to rags to waiting to return to riches.
That’s the path Notre Dame’s tight end situation has taken in less than six months since entering the 2015 pre-season camp with five scholarship players at the position.
Like several positions for the Irish in ’15, injuries put a real crimp in what looked to be a very well-stocked area, led by multi-faceted Durham Smythe – who patiently bided his time behind Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack in 2013-14 – powerful Tyler Luatua, highly-touted freshman Aliz’e Jones, promising former high school wideout Nic Weishar, and surprisingly adept blocker Chase Hounshell, who converted from defensive tackle.
All five entered the ’15 season with eligibility to return in ’16, including Hounshell, who is expected to be granted a sixth season after enduring three shoulder surgeries that sidelined him for virtually all of 2012-13.
But a source told Scout’s Anna Hickey that Luatua has informed Brian Kelly of his intention to transfer from Notre Dame – perhaps to Brigham Young – which would bring him closer to “friends, family and home,” according to Terrell Williams of CougarAccess.com.
Hounshell is reportedly pursuing avenues beyond Notre Dame to utilize a sixth year of eligibility.
From the outset of the summer of ’15, injuries cut into Notre Dame’s tight end depth, beginning with the medical hardship granted to Mike Heuerman after two sports hernia surgeries failed to give him new life on the gridiron.
Smythe missed most of Game Two versus Virginia with shoulder and knee injuries, and then the rest of the regular season before returning to the starting lineup for the Fiesta Bowl.
Luatua missed three games due to a concussion, which also sidelined him briefly as a freshman in ’14. Luatua was a powerful yet hit-and-miss blocker in 2014-15.
Weishar, who showed promise as a goal-line receiver during pre-season practices open to the media, never fully launched in ’15 with three catches for 19 yards. He, too, missed a game (Wake Forest) due to injury.
Jones became a viable pass-catching option at the position during pre-season camp, and then caught 13 passes for 190 yards (14.6-yard average) with no touchdowns. His late-fourth quarter 45-yarder against Temple help set up the game-winning score.
Jones also had three catches for 56 yards against UMass and three receptions for 42 yards in the victory over USC before closing out his rookie campaign with two grabs for 24 yards versus Ohio State. But he caught passes in just six of 13 games.
Jones was on the receiving end of 65 percent of the 20 grabs by the Irish tight ends in 2015, which by Notre Dame standards is very low. The Irish have a history of prolific pass-catching tight ends, most recently Tyler Eifert.
The Irish are a bit more than a week away from signing their Class of 2016 with no tight end prospects in the group. They’ll have to move someone on the current roster to the position if they want to have more than three scholarship tight ends this spring.
The first candidate that comes to mind is defensive tackle Jacob Matuska, a 6-foot-4 ½, 295-pound three-technique, who started at tackle for the Irish as recently as the final regular-season game of ’14 when injuries decimated Notre Dame’s line. Matuska caught 25 passes during his final two seasons as a prep defensive lineman/tight end in Columbus, Ohio.
Expected to return to the fold in ’16 is 6-foot-2, 232-pound walk-on tight end Ben Suttman.