South Bend Tribune

Post-spring stock report: Tight Ends

30 Comments

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.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Getty
20 Comments

Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
35 Comments

Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
107 Comments

Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
AP
117 Comments

Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.