A half-dozen years ago, Brian Kelly opened his first spring practice in South Bend finding out who could play as much as where they should. As a result, at least four of former head coach Charlie Weis’ players jumped from offense to defense (and often back) during 2010’s experimental phase.
In 2011, Kelly’s second season under the Dome, the sophomore tandem of Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth made a natural move from pass-catchers to pass defenders, while the memorable 2012 season became defined by such tweaks: Matthias Farley (slot to safety), Troy Niklas (linebacker to tight end), and true freshman KeiVarae Russell (running back to cornerback).
Each season since has likewise been influenced by such roster machinations, with C.J. Prosise going from defense to offense in 2013, James Onwualu from offense to defense (and Torii Hunter Jr. briefly at both) in 2014, and last fall, Chase Hounshell and freshman Jerry Tillery flipping scrimmage – Tillery beginning his career at nose tackle instead of left tackle, and the oft-injured Hounshell moving from defensive tackle to tight end.
For 2016, its John Montelus (A to Z preview forthcoming) and former defensive lineman-turned-tight end Jacob Matuska attempting to turn the trick.
Irish Illustrated’s A-to-Z preview of Notre Dame’s roster continues with Matuska, the latest in an unbroken succession of “scrimmage flips” during Brian Kelly’s seven off-seasons at the helm in South Bend
Matuska serves as Notre Dame’s designated blocking tight end in obvious running situations, surpassing the overall efforts of Hounshell last season as an inline blocker while also keeping defenses honest with a handful of catches when a run seems imminent.
Though he has to beat out returning junior Tyler Luatua, a niche role is his for the taking.
There’s not one for the program, it was a move that makes sense on both levels. For Matuska, the danger is that Luatua – not expected to return to the team when the former flipped scrimmage prior to the spring – proves to be a far more successful inline blocker and Matuska thus loses his bid to join competitive action in his senior season.
It’s a scenario that would impede Matuska’s chances at a graduate season (2017) played for his alma mater.
Chase Hounshell immediately comes to mind.
Hounshell made the move from defensive line to tight end as a graduate student and though he was not a major player in Notre Dame’s march to a Major Six bowl last season, he was doubtless a contributor.
The challenge for Matuska will be doing the same for a deeper position group. Hounshell made his move up the depth chart when starter Durham Smythe was lost for the regular season in Game 2. What remained were three competitors – a true freshman, a redshirt-freshman, and a sophomore that was a one-tool tight end.
In short, Hounshell didn’t exactly endure the trials of Job in his quest for playing time.
Matuska’s task against Smythe, Alizé’ Jones, Nic Weishar, and Luatua is a tough row to hoe.
DEVELOPMENT VS. RECRUITING RANKING
Matuska made the Scout.com 300, coming in as the 299th ranked player and the No. 32 DE prospect of the 2013 recruiting class. He has since put forth the equivalent of a competitive month of collegiate action, all as a defensive tackle, thrust into the lineup due to a rash of injuries in 2014.
Now a tight end, and one that showed well in the spring, 2016 will be a telltale season for Matuska in many respects, most notably in that it could pave the way for a fifth season under the Dome, and perhaps a more notable end-career bio for the Columbus, Ohio product.
MATUSKA AT HIS BEST
His lone career start came at USC in the 2014 season finale, but Matuska’s best career effort was doubtless against Louisville one game prior when the short-handed Irish fell 31-28 on Senior Day.
Matuska finished the day with five tackles and a first half sack of Cardinals quarterback Reggie Bonnafon. Each of his five stops resulted in gains of four yards or fewer including three Stuffs.
QUOTE TO NOTE
“It’s a difficult change. The good thing is he has some banked reps in high school. He does have some soft hands. He still has a lot of work to do in terms of things we need and what we need from him to count on. We’ve had Chase; we’ve had Troy Niklas. There are examples of guys that have done it before.” – Tight ends coach Scott Booker on Matuska’s spring progress