Any gap in continuity at tight end that was created by Notre Dame’s decision not to take a prospect at that position in the recent recruiting cycle was closed this week when Tyler Luatua, the 6-foot-2½, 255-pound junior-to-be from La Mirada, Calif., decided to stay with the Irish.
Luatua, a two-year contributor as a blocking tight end in 2014-15, had decided to leave Notre Dame and enroll at BYU – expressing a desire to be closer to his family – following Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl appearance. He planned to complete the spring semester at Notre Dame and then transfer.
But after giving it further consideration, Luatua said he “regretted my decision and realized that this place is where I should be, and need to be, moving forward.”
So Luatua approached Irish head coach Brian Kelly about staying at Notre Dame as the spring semester came to a close. Notre Dame made it official with an announcement Friday after Irish Illustrated’s Anna Hickey broke the news Thursday.
“Fortunately,” said Kelly in a released statement, “we’re in a position from a roster standpoint to bring (Luatua) back.”
That roster flexibility was made possible by Notre Dame’s decision not to sign a tight end prospect in the signing class of 2016. Contributing to that decision was the early verbal commitments from class of 2017 tight ends Brock Wright and Cole Kmet, two of the top-rated prep prospects in the country.
But when Luatua expressed his intention to transfer and sixth-year tight end Chase Hounshell decided to use his final year of eligibility elsewhere (he will attend Ohio State this fall), the Irish found themselves short-handed at tight end in the short term.
Senior Durham Smythe (with two years of eligibility heading into the fall), sophomore Alize Jones and junior Nic Weishar were scheduled to be the only tight ends on the roster in 2016. Senior Jacob Matuska (also with two years of eligibility) was moved from defensive tackle to tight end – a position to played in high school – this spring.
With Luatua’s return, the Irish basically eliminate the gap created by the decision not to sign a tight end this past February. Smythe, Luatua and Matuska all have two years of eligibility while Jones and Weishar each have three.
That means when Wright and Kmet arrive in the summer of ’17, Smythe, Luatua, Matuska, Jones and Weishar all will be returning with a combined seven years of eligibility, which should allow the newcomers to spend at least a year preparing for game action as opposed to expending a year of eligibility.
Should either or both prove worthy of playing time in ’17 ahead of the returning tight ends, so be it. But the cushion is there for a year of preparation, which often is needed for tight ends as they make the move to the collegiate level.
Luatua, who did not catch a pass in his first two years in the program, has some improvements to make in his game. Used mainly as a blocking tight end, Luatua has been somewhat of an inconsistent performer for the Irish.
He’s not necessarily the type of player who is going to put Notre Dame over the top offensively, but his new-found desire to stay with the Irish may precipitate a step up in his game, which could aid what already appears to be a strong rushing attack.
What was a position on a bit of shaky ground until the arrival of reinforcements in 2017 just became another asset on an offense that averaged 32.8 points per game in ’14 and 34.2 in ’15. That marked the first time since 2005-06 that the Irish averaged at least 30 points per game in back-to-back seasons.
The Irish enter 2016 with 20 career receptions from the tight end position. Jones caught 13 passes for 190 yards as a rookie in ’15. Smythe has four career receptions – three of which came in ’15 – while Weishar caught three passes last season.
Smythe is the only Irish tight end with a touchdown, and that came on a fake field goal against Virginia in the second game last season. Smythe suffered a pair of regular-season ending injuries against the Cavaliers, which turned the tight end position into an extremely inexperienced unit the rest of the ’15 season.