Post-spring stock report: Tight Ends

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Life after Ben Koyack begins. And really, come 2015 we head into the first year of the Brian Kelly era where the tight end position is somewhat of a question mark.

While Koyack will likely continue Notre Dame’s streak of producing NFL tight ends when he’s drafted this weekend, the 1,000 snap workhorse was a notch below predecessors Troy Niklas, Tyler Eifert and Kyle Rudolph. But he was an every-down player for Kelly’s offense, and while there were some deficiencies in his blocking and pass-catching, the players behind him are still unproven.

This spring, Durham Smythe emerged as Koyack’s successor. It was a later arrival than many expected for Smythe, who had larger expectations heaped on him, mainly because of the success of No. 2 tight ends the past few years. (In retrospect, that should’ve been a credit to Eifert and Niklas, elite athletes that both forced their way onto the field early, and took advantage of top-heavy depth charts.)

Though Scott Booker‘s position group has little experience, it’s a talent-rich position. And while Smythe appears to be a capable candidate to be a leading man, the reality of the position group leads many to believe it’ll be ensemble work for a diverse set of talent.

Let’s take a look at the post-spring depth chart and stock report for the tight ends.

 

POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART

1. Durham Smythe, Jr.* (6-4.5, 245)
2. Tyler Luatua, Soph. (6-2.5, 250)
3. Nic Weishar, Soph.* (6-4, 241)
4. Mike Heuerman, Jr.* (6-3.5, 225)
or Chase Houshell, GS (6-4.5, 255)

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility

 

STOCK UP

Durham Smythe: With Signing Day excitement and viral videos having Irish fans excited about the impending arrival of Alizé Jones, Smythe’s emergence as the team’s No. 1 tight end this spring got lost a bit in the wash. But the Texas native stepped forward and looks to be the most complete tight end on the depth chart.

It might be hard to believe, but some think Smythe could be an upgrade over Koyack, a confusing notion considering the amount of snaps that Koyack took while Smythe kept the sidelines company. But he’s big enough to hold his own along the line of scrimmage and seems to be a more capable downfield receiver than Koyack was.

Still, we’ve got no body of work to grade the rising junior on. But with three seasons of eligibility remaining, Smythe’s got plenty of time to become a top-flight tight end, and that could start this fall.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

Tyler Luatua: After starting for Notre Dame in a two-tight end set against LSU, Luatua came into spring with considerable expectations. Leaned down to 250 pounds to help make his mark in the passing game, it’s still hard to see Luatua serving as anything but an attached blocker in 2015, part of the passing game only in roll-out or play-action situations.

That’s not a knock on a physical player who could do his best work serving as a sixth offensive lineman. And with four full months in the weight room ahead, Luatua has perhaps the most clearly defined role in front of him—adding muscle to a running attack that should be very good this fall.

This might be a tough grade, but it’s still tough to see a full-time role for Luatua.

 

Nic Weishar: After redshirting as a freshman, Weishar made a nice catch late in the Blue-Gold game, reminding everybody that the prolific Chicagoland receiver was ready to try to make his mark on the Irish depth chart. With good length and great hands, Weishar should be an option to play the detached tight end position, though he’ll likely be competing with Smythe and Jones for those reps, an uphill climb.

At 241 pounds, Weishar looks to have built on a frame that desperately needed to add bulk to compete at the college level as a tight end. Until we see more of him in the trenches, we won’t know for sure if he can handle the multiplicity of the position or if he’s relegated to red zone and outside duties. But with some instability at a position that’ll likely be a little lighter come fall, Weishar made some great progress during his first year in the program, though there’s work still to be done.

 

STOCK DOWN

Chase Hounshell: This might be a harsh assessment of Hounshell’s spring, considering every coach who talked about the fifth-year prospect—Brian Kelly included—had nothing but good things to say about his effort and intentions. But with a roster crunch and no certain playing time in front of him, Hounshell spent Notre Dame’s 15 practices auditioning for another program, a long shot to return to South Bend.

The market for Hounshell’s services may be limited at Notre Dame, but with two seasons likely ahead of him thanks to a medical redshirt certainly well earned, Hounshell has an opportunity to rescuitate his career somewhere else. After an injury-plagued four years along the defensive line for the Irish, it’s hard to believe Kelly will keep a fifth-year player who only now started to show leadership traits when he’s got the opportunity to bring Ishaq Williams back to campus.

So Hounshell likely has football in front of him. But barring something surprising, it doesn’t look like it’ll be played in South Bend.

 

Mike Heuerman: Perhaps the most puzzling player on offense this spring, Heuerman was a forgotten man for the Irish. When asked about the tight ends, Kelly mentioned everybody but the Florida native, leading many to believe a transfer is in order.

At 6-3.5 and 225-pounds, Heuerman is a smaller Michael Floyd trying to play in the trenches—only without Floyd’s athleticism. That he’s been unable to gain any weight to his frame in South Bend is a huge mystery, though a variety of injuries have kept him from making forward progress in his career.

While Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph have taken snaps at weakside defensive end trying to find their way onto the field, I expected the Irish to kick the tires on Heuerman at that position as well. He earned All-State honors in high school as a havoc-wreaker off the edge, though he was recruited based on potential as a tight end by many of the finest programs in the country.

At this point, it doesn’t look like that potential will be reached. And what happens with Heuerman’s career is still a mystery. With three years of eligibility remaining, it’s unfair to bury him just yet. But at best he’ll be a niche player in the Irish offense, an H-back type in a system that’s used an H-back for maybe a dozen plays over the past five years.

 

OVERALL TREND

Buy. While the tight end position returns literally one catch to the depth chart, it’s hard to look at this position and not be intrigued. Ultimately, your viewpoint on this group hinges on what you see in Durham Smythe and what you think will be coming with Alizé Jones.

While Koyack held his own last season and will always be remembered for his clutch game-winning touchdown against Stanford, the Irish will be just fine with Smythe taking over. And if the Irish platoon Smythe and Tyler Luatua—who’ll be a blocking upgrade almost immediately—they might be taking a step forward.

Adding Jones to the mix this June is critical. Per his own Twitter feed, he’s up to 238 pounds and snagging one-handed footballs like it’s a hobby. It’s hard to see a world where he’s not an immediate contributor, and the Irish staff believes they have a future star.

So regardless of what happens with Hounshell and Heuerman, a four-man depth chart that finds snaps for Smythe, Luatua, Weishar and Jones is a pretty good place to be.

Would you like to have some past performance? Of course. But Finance 101 reminds us all that past performance isn’t indicative of future results. I’m bullish on this group.

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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Back from break, Irish commence hitting; DT Elijah Taylor out with LisFranc injury

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Notre Dame last wore pads in its 45-27 defeat at USC back on Nov. 26, a full 117 days ago. Suffice it to say, the Irish enjoyed the chance to don their shoulder pads and hit each other in Wednesday’s third spring practice, the first one since returning from spring break.

“What I liked about it more than anything else is there wasn’t a big drop off today,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Usually you go two days and then you take a week off, and then you come back and put your pads on—it took us only a couple of periods to get back up to form. That was nice to see.”

Contrary to previous years in spring practice, and perhaps practice in general, Kelly emphasized tackling, especially tackling in the open-field, in Wednesday’s drills.

“[I] felt like we needed to make up for a little lost ground,” he said. “We got in tackling today for the first time. That’ll be an emphasis. We’ll tackle a lot this spring to make up for lost ground.”

The early and often physical nature of practice didn’t bother any of the players, per Kelly, but also per presumed common sense. While Notre Dame’s coaching staff changes and public questioning played out in broad view, the players spent 117 days in private waiting to unleash some of the frustrations of 2016’s disappointing season.

“Everybody to a man has been looking forward to this day,” Kelly said. “It was a pretty difficult offseason for them. They were looking forward to putting the pads on and getting out there. I think they exhibited that today.”

TAYLOR OUT FOR SPRING, AT LEAST
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor was not in pads Wednesday. In the final practice before spring break, another player stepped on Taylor’s foot, Kelly said. The resulting LisFranc fracture will keep Taylor out of the remaining dozen spring practices and limit him until at least July. Taylor saw action in four games last season, finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss.

Notre Dame team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan already performed Taylor’s surgery.

“Typical LisFranc fractures, we’ve had good success with their repairs,” Kelly said. “…We’ll be able to train around the injury. Full range of motion moving around and doing things in June, probably full clearance sometime in July.”

Without Taylor, the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line becomes even shallower, though that may have been hard to previously comprehend. Junior Jerry Tillery looks to be ready to start, and senior Jonathan Bonner has moved to the inside, rather than at end as he has been for most of his career. Behind them, the Irish present only question marks.

Kelly said he will look to junior Micah Dew-Treadway to step forward in Taylor’s absence.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us,” Kelly said. “Changed his body, has been doing a really good job in all facets, in the class room and weight room. He’s somebody that had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

Kelly indicated junior Brandon Tiassum also could be expected to see more work with Taylor sidelined.

Seniors Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are in the mix, as well. Cage struggled with concussion issues last season after a promising 2015.

Notre Dame will need to wait until the freshmen arrive—perhaps also joined by Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano, reportedly still taking official visits as he ponders his 2017 destination—for further reinforcements. Consensus four-star recruit Darnell Ewell would be the most likely candidate of the three expected arrivals to move up the depth chart right away.

In layman’s terms, a Lisfranc fracture occurs when a mid-foot bone connecting to a toe separates from the cluster of bones toward the heel. Note: This is stated here only to provide some context, nothing more. This particular scribe avoided most biology classes.

CLAYPOOL A RECEIVER AND THAT HE WILL STAY
Asked if he considered moving sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to defense, Kelly answered succinctly.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

KELLY ON KIZER’S NFL POTENTIAL
“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about [former Notre Dame quarterback] DeShone [Kizer], and my personal feeling is he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks. I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you [this year]. Some may feel as though maybe one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand. But I think, in time, he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I get it. It’s the NFL. Everybody’s under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away, but I think he’s a guy that just needs some time. If he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Kizer and eight other former Irish players will take part in a pro day tomorrow (Thursday) in front of some of those GMs and coaches.