Kelly’s Best Recruits: Tight Ends

Twenty Notre Dame tight ends have been drafted since Dave Casper was a second-round choice by the Raiders, including five first-rounders and five second-rounders.

SCOUT TIGHT END RANKINGS

1. 5* Ben Koyack (2011) – No. 25 overall; No. 1 TE
2. 5* Alizé Mack (2015) – No. 32 overall; No. 2 TE
3. 4* Brock Wright (2017) – No. 76 overall; No. 3 TE
4. 4* Cole Kmet (2017) – No. 109 overall; No. 4 TE
5. 4* Alex Welch (2010) – No. 111 overall; No. 4 TE
6. 4* Durham Smythe (2013) – No. 170 overall; No. 6 TE
7. 4* Mike Heuerman (2013) – No. 245 overall; No. 10 TE
8. 4* Nic Weishar (2014) – NR; No. 13 TE
9. 3* Tyler Luatua (2013) – NR; No. 18 TE

Over the last four-plus decades, few schools can boast the tight-end talent produced by Notre Dame.

Since Dave Casper became the No. 45 overall pick of the Oakland Raiders in 1974, the Irish have had 20 tight ends drafted, including five first-rounders (Ken MacAfee 1978, Tony Hunter 1983, Derek Brown 1992, Irv Smith 1993, Tyler Eifert 2013) and five-second-rounders (Casper, Anthony Fasano 2006, John Carlson 2008, Kyle Rudolph 2011, Troy Niklas 2014).

Charlie Weis recruited Brian Kelly’s two most productive tight ends at Notre Dame.

Rudolph caught 90 passes for the Irish from 2008-10, including 28 for 328 yards and three touchdowns in Kelly’s first year before Rudolph suffered a season-ending injury in Game 6.

Eifert caught 140 passes for 1,840 yards and 11 touchdowns – all with Kelly – from 2010-12, including 113 receptions for 1,488 yards and nine touchdowns in his final 26 games in an Irish uniform.

After his freshman season at linebacker, Niklas moved to tight end before the 2012 season. He emerged from Eifert’s shadows in 2013 with 32 receptions for 498 yards and five touchdowns.

The best is yet to come. Kelly recruits Alizé Mack and Brock Wright, and perhaps Durham Smythe and Cole Kmet, appear to have futures beyond Notre Dame. Nic Weishar also could break out in 2017-18.

MOST PRODUCTIVE

Ben Koyack – In addition to Niklas’ breakout season in 2013, Koyack proved to be the most productive tight end recruited by Kelly with 44 career receptions for 632 yards and five touchdowns, including a 30-catch, 317-yard, two-touchdown senior season in 2014.

Koyack caught at least one pass in all 13 games in 2014, including a 23-yard touchdown reception from Everett Golson with 1:01 remaining in Notre Dame’s 17-14 home victory over Stanford.

Koyack caught 19 passes for 161 yards and a touchdown this past season for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who drafted him in the seventh round following the 2014 season.

BREAKOUT CANDIDATES
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Alizé Mack – Playing in all 13 games and starting five in his rookie season (2015), Mack – then known as Alizé Jones – caught 13 passes for 190 yards, including a 45-yarder at Temple that helped set up the game-winning touchdown. He also snagged a 35-yarder in the home victory over USC.

In the spring of ’16, Mack was utilized as a wideout in the Irish offense, portending great potential with his size, speed and versatility. Academics ultimately sidelined the talented 6-foot-4 ½, 240-pounder during the 2016 season.

Still uncertain about his future with the Irish, Mack had a productive spring of ’17 in the slot as well as a wideout. Upon the completion of the spring semester, Mack was cleared for participation this fall. He has the physical ability to be one of Notre Dame’s all-time greats.

Durham Smythe – After preserving a year of eligibility as a freshman in 2013, Smythe played in all 13 games in ’14, catching one pass for seven yards against Arizona State.

He looked to be in line for a productive red-shirt sophomore season in 2015 when he caught passes in each of his first two games, including a seven-yard touchdown reception against Virginia on a fake-field goal. But shoulder/knee injuries sidelined him for the final 10 regular-season games before returning for the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State when he grabbed his third pass of the season.

Smythe had just six catches for 63 yards and one touchdown (vs. Michigan State) through the first eight games of 2016 before making three catches for 49 yards – all for touchdowns – in consecutive games against Army and Navy.

Mack remains Notre Dame’s top tight-end target in ’17, but Smythe could find a more significant niche in tandem with Mack in Chip Long’s tight-end friendly offense.

UNFULFILLED PROMISE

Alex Welch – The four-star, No. 4-rated tight end in 2010 battled injuries and never did quite finding his footing at Notre Dame where he saw action in 22 games, catching one pass for eight yards while adding six tackles on special teams.

After earning his degree in management consulting, Welch spent his fifth year of eligibility at Miami (Ohio) under former Irish assistant Chuck Martin. Welch caught 24 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns for the Redhawks in ’16.

Mike Heuerman – The four-star, No. 10-rated tight end in 2013 battled multiple sports-hernia injuries and never did play a down for the Irish before his career came to an end prior to the 2015 season.

Tyler Luatua – The future looked bright for the three-star prospect as a freshman in 2014 when he was employed as a blocker in two-tight end sets early in the season against Purdue, Syracuse and Stanford.

Now in his final year of eligibility, Luatua has yet to catch a pass in 32 games. Even his role as a blocker appears to have come and gone while working as the fifth tight end this spring with a sixth, Cole Kmet, due to arrive in June.

POSITION SWITCHES

Troy Niklas – Listed as the No. 75 overall prospect and No. 8 offensive tackle by Scout, Niklas played outside linebacker as a freshman in 2011. He recorded 20 tackles, two quarterback hurries and a fumble recovery before switching to tight end for his final two years in the program.

Jacob Matuska -- Played eight games at defensive tackle for the Irish in 2014-15 before switching to tight end in ’16.

Chase Hounshell -- After an injury-plagued run along the defensive line that included multiple shoulder surgeries, Hounshell moved to tight end in 2015, where he caught his only pass for six yards against Wake Forest. He took his fifth year of eligibility to Ohio State in ’16 as a graduate transfer.

CURRENT RANKING

1t. Ben Koyack
1t. Troy Niklas
3. Alizé Mack
4. Durham Smythe
5. Nic Weishar – Despite the crowded house that is the Notre Dame tight end position, Weishar, who caught three passes in 2015 and three more in 2016, remains a promising candidate who could be in line for a substantial jump up in Chip Long’s tight end-heavy scheme. He’s Notre Dame’s top downfield tight end threat after Mack.
6. Tyler Luatua


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