After an incredibly impressive run at the position, Notre Dame enters spring practice with nothing but question marks at tight end. After Brian Kelly watched Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas and now Ben Koyack churn through his program, he’ll spend spring trying to figure out what exactly he has at the position.
Returning at tight end is exactly one catch, from rising junior Durham Smythe. And before touted freshman Alizé Jones steps foot on campus, Scott Booker (or whoever is officially coaching tight ends after the reshuffle) has some work to do.
TIGHT END DEPTH CHART
1. Durham Smythe, Jr.*
2. Tyler Luatua, Soph.
3. Mike Heuerman, Jr.*
4. Nic Weishar, Soph.*
*Signifies fifth-year of eligibility available.
It’s worth giving this position group–and the coaching staff’s recruiting efforts–the benefit of the doubt. There’s likely plenty of talent at the position. But before Jones comes in as a bonafide receiving weapon, this foursome needs to prove it can help in both the run and the pass game.
Durham Smythe: Many expected a mini-breakout season last year from Smythe, with the No. 2 tight end in years past capable of chipping in 10 catches or so. But Smythe’s only catch came in a turnover plagued loss to Arizona State, and with receiving weapons plentiful, there wasn’t a lot of usage for Smythe, who served as the primary backup to Koyack.
If the Texas native (and one-time Longhorn commitment) wants that to change before Notre Dame kicks off the season against Texas, he needs to set the tone early this spring. There’s no reason Smythe doesn’t establish himself as the “starter” this spring, though how that’s defined remains to be seen.
While he’s got work to do in the weight room before he can hold his own at the point of attack, Smythe’s drawn nothing but solid reviews from his coaches and looks like the most well-rounded player at the position.
Tyler Luatua: You may have noticed the freshman in the starting lineup against LSU in the Music City Bowl. Luatua was the team’s most capable run blocker as a true freshman, more of a compliment to the 260-pounder than an indictment on Koyack.
Without knowing how Kelly and new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford want to run this offense, it’s hard to predict how much Luatua will be used. But he’s more than just a big body, and his ability to serve as an H-back, fullback or downfield option will make him a handful. And it’ll be very interesting to see how a full offseason in the system will transform Luatua’s body. He could very easily be a 280-pounder sooner than later.
Last season, Boise State ran the ball 57 percent of the time. (The Irish ran it 51 percent.) If Sanford brings that attitude to South Bend, Luatua is going to be on the field a lot.
Mike Heuerman: After two seasons in the program, we’re still not exactly sure what Notre Dame has in Mike Heuerman. A highly-touted recruit who had his choice of elite programs to play for before he came to South Bend, Heuerman seems like the bizarro Luatua, a wiry 225-pounder who feels like a tweener at the position.
Getting healthy is the first step for Heuerman. A variety of maladies have kept him off the field, including a sports hernia surgery that put him off schedule in training camp. But spring is the ultimate opportunity for Heuerman to make his move on the depth chart, especially with Nic Weishar possessing a similar skill-set and Jones coming this summer.
It’s a complete hunch, but it’s worth pointing out that Heuerman was a first-team All-Area defensive end during his senior season in high school. And if the Irish are looking for a guy who can rush the passer, it might be worth kicking the tires on Heuerman. Especially if he’s buried on the depth chart.
Nic Weishar: We get our first look at one of the most prolific receivers in Chicagoland high school football this spring as Weishar will get his opportunity to battle for playing time. After looking like he needed some time with Paul Longo, Weishar will have his chance to provide a matchup problem on the outside while also needing to prove he can battle in the trenches.
If you’re looking for an early leader in the clubhouse to warm up the phrase “catch radius,” Weishar might be your dark horse candidate after Corey Robinson. He’s a natural in space and a shiny new toy for the passing game.
If there’s a Tyler Eifert-lite in this position group, it could be Weishar. That’s a lofty comparison to a football player who hasn’t done done anything yet, but we have to remember that before Eifert was a Mackey Award winner and first-round draft pick, he was a 3-star beanpole with a bad back who was nearly a forgotten piece of the roster.
No pressure, Nic.