Always good for a quip or enjoyable anecdote during his college career, former Irish starter Troy Niklas unwittingly offered a portent regarding Notre Dame’s tight ends in the post-Tyler Eifert era.
Told in the spring of 2013 that his former first-team All-America teammate was targeted a whopping 98 times as a senior in 2012, Niklas openly chuckled, offering the following reality regarding his forthcoming season:
“Yeah, we won’t sniff that as a unit.”
That unit included Ben Koyack and a then-healthy Alex Welch and Niklas was right, they didn’t approach the century mark in total targets (69 combined), but a Niklas/Koyack pairing accounted for eight touchdowns in 2013, the most at Notre Dame for the position group since 1977.
Since? The tight end has gone the way of the Dodo Bird in head coach Brian Kelly’s offense, with Koyack targeted just 38 times despite playing nearly every offensive snap in 2014, and last season’s snaps divided among a collection of not-ready rookies and/or position neophytes.
THE BEST LAID PLANS
It wasn’t supposed to be that way, not with heir apparent junior Durham Smythe in the fold. But two games and two surgeries (shoulder and knee) later, the Irish were without Smythe for the remainder of the regular season and instead forced to function with a pair of perimeter players still better suited to play wide receiver, plus another tandem more well-versed at scrimmage than in the art of the sit-down or seam route.
“There were roles last year and quite frankly I don’t think we want that too much because then a (defense) can scheme us,” said position coach Scott Booker. “We want complete tight ends. I know it sounds like a broken record – I sit up here and say that every single year. But we have to be complete tight ends so defenses don’t know if we’re going to pass with you, run with you, pass block, whatever.
“When we get to that point, you’ll see good things from us.”
It’s what Irish fans saw continuously from 2003, beginning with Anthony Fasano, through 2013 with Niklas and Koyack. The latter held his own in ’14 but production in the passing game (30 receptions with two scores, one famously the game-winner vs. Stanford) was a far cry from previous iterations.
Last season’s Irish offense instead relied on the big play, with All-American Will Fuller (targeted 102 times) and running backs C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams leading the charge, followed by receivers Chris Brown, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Amir Carlisle.
Tight ends, other than the occasional downfield look to freshman Aliz’e Jones (13 receptions, 190 yards), were the second-class citizens of the 2015 passing game, and, truth be told, of the rushing attack as well.
“It’s a lot mentally on the tight end position,” said Booker of Jones’ first-year adjustment. “With alignments, motion, running routes like wide receivers, running and pass blocking like offensive linemen. To be a complete tight end here you have to be sharp mentally. As a freshman or redshirt freshman there’s a lot on your plate. Year 2 they’re a lot more comfortable in our system, with the things we have them do, with the check system we have in place.”
EACH WITH PLENTY TO PROVE
Smythe’s versatility remains the unit’s key component entering 2016. The senior can be paired with either Jones and/or Nic Weishar to stress defenses downfield while, it is to be hoped, likewise succeed at securing the edge or springing a runner at the second level with a quality block.
“They’ve made huge strides over the last year,” said Smythe of the young duo. “It was accelerated to an extent because we had so many injuries. Their production wasn’t as good as it was in the past, but if you broke down the film on a week-to-week basis, they did a great job. It was exciting to watch them grow and now continue to grow with them.”
Smythe still needs to grow in two crucial areas, both of which are preached by the staff and echoed by players in spring, August, and fall interviews.
Consistency and production.
“My goal is to be an all-around guy, a complete tight end,” said Smythe who enters the season with a modest four career catches on just seven targets. “When I was a freshman I was more of a receiver, and I built up to try to be even (blocker/receiver). Now I think I can elevate both. Trying to be reliable in both aspects of the offense. Somebody that can be trusted.”
It’s what Booker wants from each member of his unit. Now in his fifth season coaching the position in South Bend, Booker will lean on Smythe while looking to unleash the unique gifts Jones and Weishar possess in the passing game. But those skills won’t flash on football Saturdays if the pair doesn’t improve at scrimmage, first.
“He was mostly detached,” said Booker of Jones’ decorated prep career at Bishop Gorman High School (Las Vegas). “Great ball skills. Attacks the ball. Loves to play the game. Definitely has the speed and agility to be a great matchup for us on safeties and linebackers. That’s what you see a lot of, matching up on safeties and linebackers. Throughout the years with Coach (Brian) Kelly, we’ve been very successful with those matchups and we can continue that.
“But those two (Jones and Weishar) needed to get used to being in there and grinding. Get with our O-Line and be able to work combination blocks. It’s a work in progress. As you saw, Nic at Stanford did some really good things in the run game so we’re looking to try to improve and grow in that.”
Senior tight end Jacob Matuska joins the aforementioned trio this spring. A backup defensive lineman that bulked up to 295 pounds last season, Matuska was listed at 275 entering spring ball. He continues to trim his frame and as a player with prep experience at tight end, figures to contribute as a fourth tight end next fall.
“We don’t want to have our tight ends at 285-290, so him taking it upon himself getting down to 265 to 268 is definitely helping him out,” said Booker.
Among the quartet, Booker should be able to find the right combination to bring Kelly’s preferred “12 Formation” back to the Irish offense.
“That’s what we want to do. We have to become more consistent in the run and the pass game to do that though,” said Booker of Kelly’s spread offense that previous to 2014 utilized a preponderance of two tight end sets. “We’re not there yet but that’s our goal in the tight end room.
“And that’s competition, right? No one can rest on ‘Well, I’m the guy.’ There’s a lot of competitive nature on the film room and the practice field. They know that if they do their jobs, all of them will play and see some success.”
And thus a return to the natural order of things at Tight End U.