The return of academic casualty Alizé’ Jones…the imminent arrival of the highly touted tandem of Brock Wright and Cole Kmet. And most important in the short-term, the return of fifth-year senior starter Durham Smythe.
New tight ends coach Chip Long (he doubles as the program’s offensive coordinator in his spare time) has ample talent with which to work, both this spring and when two talented freshmen join this summer.
Smythe enters his third season as a starter, though the first of those was lost to knee and shoulder surgeries – his “2-for-1 Groupon” as Smythe noted when he made it back for the Fiesta Bowl in 2015.
Wright could make an immediate impact and Kmet will likely be ready for prime time in 2018 when Smythe is no longer in the fold.
Senior Nic Weishar accompanies the group. He’s an August Camp star but opportunity and production has not presented for the senior-to-be from Chicagoland. (Weishar is eligible through the 2018.)
Jones has earned an ardent fan following due in equal parts to his purported pass-catching prowess and continuous offerings of #TicToc – insinuating his time, and Notre Dame’s time on the national stage, is imminent.
It’s likewise notable that Jones apparently never wavered in his allegiance to the program despite academic suspension that cost him his sophomore campaign.
Jones was targeted 24 times as a freshman in 2015. He caught 13 passes for 190 yards and six first downs including a 45-yard grab that helped the Irish come back to beat Temple in Philadelphia.
His talent is undeniable – his resume entering his junior season is meager.
While Jones did not play as a result of academic suspension, Smythe was targeted 15 times last season. Weishar just eight. From those opportunities came nine receptions, 112 yards, and four touchdowns for Smythe and three catches for 47 yards for Weishar.
Smythe’s 15 targets resulted in six first downs (included therein are his four touchdowns) while Weishar moved the chains on each of his trio of catches, though never on third down.
As for third-down production for the team’s starting tight end, Smythe produced just three first downs in 2016, fumbling one at the goal line recovered by his quarterback to stave off yet another fourth-quarter Irish collapse.
Why is this the downside? Because as a point of comparison, former Irish tight end Troy Niklas produced similar numbers (19 targets, 3 TD, 201 yards) in September of his junior year alone.
Tight End Options
Joining those discussed above is senior Tyler Luatua (no pass targets in 2015 or 2016 after a pair as a freshman – sans a catch – in 2014). Luatua played fewer than 50 snaps last fall.
Though Long favors a two tight end approach offensively, Luatua appears on the outside looking in because he’s failed to establish himself as a reliable blocker after purportedly showing promise in that regard as a rookie.
Jones, Smythe, and Weishar provide a potentially strong trio – one that freshman Brock Wright is expected to join on game days this fall.
Smythe and Jones are featured in tandem more often than not and are crucial components to the offense throughout 2017. (It’s nonsensical to think an offensive coordinator/tight ends coach gifted a quintet of quality tight ends would suddenly choose to feature a questionably deep wide receiver corps instead.)
Can the starting pair – replete with potential if not prior production – along with Weishar and perhaps Wright, combine to match or exceed the output produced by Niklas, Ben Koyack (a rookie Smythe added one catch) under former offensive coordinator and play-caller Chuck Martin in 2013?
2013: 69 targets, 47 receptions, 667 yards, 8 TD
The eight touchdowns scored by Niklas and Koyack marks the most at the position since 1977.
All-American Tyler Eifert (98 targets in 2012) might not be walking through the LaBar Practice Complex gates in 2017, but plenty of talent is. After a three-season absence (including two years of utter dormancy), Tight End U should make its triumphant return to South Bend.