Jacob Matuska’s home, heart at tight end

After starting against USC in the ‘14 regular-season finale, Matuska fell behind interior defensive linemen Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage. A shot at tight end offers new life.

When Jacob Matuska arrived at Notre Dame in 2013, he was part of a class that included four-star Texas tight end Durham Smythe and four-star Florida tight end Mike Heuerman.

Tyler Eifert’s selection in the first round of the NFL draft had loosened things up a bit at the position, but Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas – the latter of which had moved over from defense – were helping fill a crowded house.

Matuska, a 6-foot-5, 265-pounder out of Bishop Hartley High School in Columbus, Ohio, had lofty aspirations. He wanted to add his name to the long list of standout tight ends at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s plan didn’t mesh with Matuska’s vision.

“I’ve dreamt of coming to Notre Dame and playing tight end since I was a little kid,” said Matuska (pronounced muh-TOOS-kuh), who will be entering his senior year academically this fall with two years of football eligibility remaining.

“Coming in, I decided wherever they saw me as the best fit was where I was going to work my hardest and try to be successful.”

Notre Dame’s vision for Matuska was, first, defensive end, and then interior defensive line. After preserving a year of eligibility in ’13, Matuska was the beneficiary of a rash of injuries along Notre Dame’s defensive line in ’14. He saw action in six of the last seven games of the season, including the starting nod at Southern California in the regular-season finale.

“It’s pretty cool to be able to say I started against our greatest rival, USC, in California,” Matuska said.

But Matuska, as a 290-pound defensive tackle, never was comfortable in his role on the side opposite of his coveted tight end position.

“It’s nice being strong,” smiled Matuska of the benefits of growing into a defensive lineman. “But I feel faster, more agile…I feel more comfortable, to be completely honest.”

Matuska began longing for his old position during the 2015 season when his role along the Irish defensive line disappeared with the arrival of Jerry Tillery and the emergence of Daniel Cage.

Lining up across from him on the practice field was Chase Hounshell, himself a former defensive lineman who had made the transition to tight end in ’15.

“I thought, ‘Maybe there will be a switch down the road,’ and then it happened to Chase,” Matuska said.

When Brian Kelly called Matuska into his office after the 2015 regular season came to a close, the Irish head coach said the words Matuska had longed to hear.

“When (Kelly) told me, I was ecstatic,” said Matuska, who became a necessity at tight end with the expected transfers of Tyler Luatua and Hounshell. “I didn’t really expect it, but I had hoped for it.

“(Kelly) sat me down and said they thought it would be beneficial for me and the team if I would make this switch. They’d seen me play tight end before and after seeing the transformation of Chase, maybe this would be a way for me to get on the field and make a difference for this team.”

Like Hounshell, Matuska hasn’t moved to defense to lead the Irish tight ends in receptions in 2016. Alize’ Jones, Durham Smythe and Nic Weishar are well qualified for the pass-catching role, although Matuska is much more adept as a receiver than Hounshell and even Luatua were.

“They’ve given me opportunities to be an all-around tight end this spring,” Matuska said. “But they say they brought me over to be an in-line blocker, which is fine.”

Matuska is relishing the opportunity/necessity to be a real student of the game as he makes his transition to an area where he can aid the offensive cause as an attached blocker as well as a fairly agile 265-pound blocker in space.

“Just understanding the schemes,” said Matuska of his main focus. “I played tight end in high school and I knew what it entailed: blocking, catching…

“But mostly I want to work on the schemes and what the offense does and perfecting my technique before I try to make my game go above and beyond what it is now.”

The transition back to tight end is easier because Matuska has a working knowledge of the position. The difficult part is the scheme variance from the one he experienced during his prep days.

“We ran a Wing-T in high school, so that’s completely different than what we have here,” Matuska said. “But for the most part, you use your hands, move your feet…the basics are there.

“I’ve been able to catch on faster than if I had never been a blocker before. That’s obviously been a help to me.”

For Matuska, no matter how large or limited his role in 2016 and perhaps even 2017, he’s found a comfort zone at tight end.

It’s good to be home again.

“When Coach Kelly told me about switching to tight end, it was something I had been thinking about for a while,” Matuska said.

“It’s been a real blessing to get this opportunity, and I’m trying to make the most of it.”

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