After a long line of starters with plenty of experience, Notre Dame’s tight ends all but start over in 2015. Scott Booker’s position group comes in with all sorts of intriguing traits. Unfortunately, none of those are experience.
The closest to filling that role is junior Durham Smythe. Serving as the No. 2 tight end in an offense that didn’t often use one, Smythe made just one catch last season while Ben Koyack led the offense in snaps played.
But a lack of experience isn’t to say the position group isn’t talented. Whether it’s freshman phenom Alizé Jones, Nic Weishar off his redshirt, bowling ball Tyler Luatua or fifth-year converted defensive lineman Chase Hounshell, the ability to mix and match is certainly there if nobody takes hold of the job.
Let’s take our last looks at an intriguing piece of the offense.
Position Coach: Scott Booker
TE1: Durham Smythe, Jr.*
TE2: Tyler Luatua, Soph.
TE3: Alizé Jones, Fr.
TE4: Nic Weishar, Soph.*
TE5: Chase Hounshell, Grad Student*
*Denotes additional year of eligibility
Alizé Jones. Yes, I realize I have him listed as third on the depth chart. But when you look at this position group, there are a lot of intriguing supporting pieces and only one guy who feels like a star in the making. So while Jones is going to have to learn how to block, get a better feel for the system and become a complete tight end before he can truly ascend to this spot, he’s the guy who will eventually be the next great Notre Dame tight end.
NEED A BIG SEASON
Durham Smythe & Tyler Luatua. I list both of these guys because I think they both have a chance to do very important things for this offense. In Smythe, the Irish have probably the closest thing to a two-way tight end as there is on the roster. He’s the veteran of the group and should have the best knowledge of the system. But after thinking he was ready to make an impact in 2014, Smythe caught just one pass. After being banged up a bit during camp, Smythe didn’t get off to the quickest start, but hopefully he’ll be ready come Texas.
In Luatua, the Irish have a blocker who could be a physical force. He’s also capable of rumbling for some yardage if he’s out in the flat as Malik Zaire’s safety valve. At 255 pounds, he’s a physical presence who can attach to the offensive line or play—gasp!—fullback.
THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…
Can anybody establish a rhythm? Brian Kelly mentioned a mix-and-match approach to the position, a logical choice with this type of personnel. But often times the Irish offense gets predictable when they utilize certain players in certain formations, and that feels like almost an inevitability for the tight ends. (Not that I expect to see Jones next to the left tackle on 3rd and 1, but still.)
But beyond giving the defense a tell, it might also hinder someone from breaking out. If that’s Smythe, great. If it’s Jones, wonderful. It could also be Nic Weishar, who has had an excellent camp. When the offense tried to juggle four running backs, you couldn’t help but feel like they lost something. That’s the big worry at a position this deep, too.
Can this offense utilize two tight end sets? As a power running team, putting two tight ends on the field could be a formation that really helps power the offense. But as we worry about finding some experience in this group, is it too much to ask to find two guys who can play?
Grad student Chase Hounshell is miraculously still a part of the football program, and might be Notre Dame’s best attached blocker. After using two tight ends against LSU, can this position group develop two fast enough?
Who can Brian Kelly trust? There might be all the skill in the world in true freshman Alizé Jones, but if Kelly can’t trust him to do his job, it’ll be hard for him to play. Same with any of the young players in this position group. Last year, Koyack took all the snaps, even if he was limited in space and not the best blocker. But he knew what he was doing and Kelly relied on that experience in the offense. Developing that trust will be key for whoever steps forward.
Can Nic Weishar look as good on the field as he does in practice? When Jones and Smythe were out Weishar put on a show, a difficult receiver to cover, especially in the red zone. Will that translate to the playing field and can the Chicagoland native get into the mix and be a dangerous part of the passing attack?
Will Chase Hounshell really find his home at tight end? When you looked at fifth-year senior candidates, heading into spring Hounshell was at the bottom of the list. But give credit to the hard-luck Ohio native who willed his way back onto the team and reinvented himself as a block-first tight end. It’d be quite a miraculous finish to his Notre Dame career if he was able to contribute this season—and that’s without considering he’ll likely be eligible for a sixth year.
Are there enough footballs for the tight ends? Everybody expects the running game to play a bigger role this season. Notre Dame’s receiving corps is as deep and talented as it’s ever been. Assuming guys like Smythe, Weishar and Jones have the skills to get involved in the passing game, how exactly are they going to find footballs for them?