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Notre Dame Football

Spring Preview: Tight End

February 16, 2017

Kyle Rudolph. Tyler Eifert. Anthony Fasano. John Carlson. Jabari Holloway. Irv Smith. Derek Brown. Mark Bavaro. Ken MacAfee. Dave Casper.

That's a long list of standout tight ends from Notre Dame and there were more that could have been included. They didn't get the name "Tight End U" just from players in the last fifteen years. They've been putting tight ends in the NFL for a long time.

It's been a frustrating couple of seasons for the program that earned that name. The play at the position has not been up to the previous standard set by past players. The blocking was not at the level it needed to be and the production wasn't even close.

In 2015 and 2016, the position combined for only 32 catches and 392 yards. Troy Niklas had 32 catches for 498 yards in 2013 by himself. And most know that Niklas was not close to being the most productive tight end they've had in the last decade. It's just an indication of how far things have fallen off a cliff at the position.

There is hope that the Irish are going to climb back up to the mountain top, though. Chip Long being hired as offensive coordinator is one reason for optimism. With him coaching the tight ends, things are expected to improve in every area. There are plenty of options for him to work with on the roster. It's going to be very interesting to see if one or two players start to step forward to help reclaim "Tight End U" this spring.

Nothing secure for Smythe

When new coaches come in, they always preach that they want competition. They like to say that every spot is open. Some of the time it's just talk when someone is clearly entrenched as the starter. I do believe that tight end will be wide open this time around because none of the players have distinguished themselves enough to be ahead of the pack.

Even though Durham Smythe is the returning starter at tight end, I'm sure nothing will be handed to him. He needs to beat out everyone else for the job because he hasn't played well enough for him to feel secure.

I thought his perimeter blocking improved last year, but he did not do well when lined up in-line. He did add four touchdowns as a receiver. The biggest thing with him in that phase of the game is his lack of separation. I think he may just be who he is as a receiver. He can be a complimentary piece, but not "the guy" to put up Mackey award level numbers.

Long and Brian Kelly have said they want to use two tight ends more and Smythe should have a good shot at being one of those two. He will have to step up in a huge way in March and April to prove he can be the first of those two.

Will Weishar find more of a fit?

In a different situation, I'm not sure Nic Weishar would have played much the last two seasons. He came into Notre Dame as basically a big receiver that needed to develop the tight end part of his game and it's been a process. If Smythe was healthy in 2015, perhaps Weishar is the odd man out and gets another year to physically develop. If I had a pick for someone who could benefit the most from a changing in the strength and conditioning program, he might be near the top of the list.

He really struggled at the point of attack as a blocker and maybe he always will. That is the part of his game that needs the most improving. I felt he was good when asked to play more of an H-back role where he could lead block on counters. I could see him benefiting quite a bit from how Long has used his tight ends in that way if they integrate more of that in the spring.

Can he be a threat as a receiver, though? He hasn't shown much to say that he will and I think he'll have to or else be passed by others who could be ready to emerge.

#TicToc is it finally time for Jones?

One of the breakout players from last spring, it was a crushing blow when the news came out that Alize Jones was ineligible last fall. He looked liked he was about to live up to the recruiting hype he came in with and if he was on the field, perhaps we would have considered that Tight End U was already back.
He has a lot to prove this spring. It's clear that he has the most athletic talent out of any tight end on the roster, but he needs to come out and be that much better than everyone else.

He has a lot to prove this spring. It's clear that he has the most athletic talent out of any tight end on the roster, but he needs to come out and be that much better than everyone else. He needs to show it again to a new coach that might be skeptical of that hype because not much of it has been on actual Saturdays.

I'm very interested to see where he is with his blocking. He looked to be improving last year, but we never got to see it after. Where is he at now that is this far into his college career?

As for receiving, is he going to look like he did before or will it be an even better version of him? If he is better, is there a chance they take a look at him again at W and slide Equanimeous St. Brown over to X on some plays? Jones offers so many possibilities because he is that talented, but I think the coaches may not choose to explore those options until they have seen enough from him to know he is around for the long haul. They can't prepare for him to be a key piece if they think he may not be there once again.

My hunch is that he will come out extra motivated and may be forced to take baby steps before starting to sprint past the other tight ends. If he is going to be a weapon in the offense this season, he needs to start that process immediately in the spring.

After a step back, can Luatua step forward again as a blocker?

Expectations for Luatua this spring and for his senior season are not sky high. In three years he has not shown anything as a receiving threat. He barely played as the third tight end last season.

This was a departure from his his first two years where he filled an important role as a blocker. Not many come in and compete as a blocking tight end as a true freshman, but Luatua was a rare exception. Then as a sophomore in 2015 he was really starting to come into his own in-line. On counter plays when lined up as an H-back, he almost had the effect of a pulling guard. He had some very key blocks on the edge that season.

Understandably not participating in the spring found him out of the mix for much of last season. A new coach and a new philosophy might give him one last shot to get back into a more prominent role. I think he still could very well have something to contribute as a run blocker. He'll just need to find enough reps and take advantage of those reps to get back into the mix this spring.

If Long is giving these players a true blank slate, I could see it happening for Luatua. There has been a call for sixth offensive lineman to lined up at tight end sometimes and that may not be needed if Luatua can be that defacto extra lineman.

Looking over their shoulder at Wright

The top tight end recruit in the nation is enrolled early. With a 5th year senior, two 4th years players, and a 3rd year player in front of him, there shouldn't be a need for him to make an impact and it should be difficult for him to leapfrog most of them in the spring.

It should be. It may not be. The reason it may not be is because of how physically mature Brock Wright is compared to most freshman. He looks like he is already two years into a college program. He also isn't a glorified wide receiver. He is more of the hybrid tight end/offensive tackle (hat tip to Coach Chmiel) as a blocker than a hybrid tight end/wide receiver. This is not an ordinary tight end coming in to compete as a freshman.
This is not an ordinary tight end coming in to compete as a freshman.

The way it usually works is that he will start out as the fifth tight end on the depth chart at the start of practices. Can he rise up to the top three by the end of it? It's definitely possible. I'm excited to see him catch the ball as well and see how he looks in that department. His blocking was just so dominant in high school that his receiving chops were almost an afterthought.

It's going to be a very interesting competition for playing time at tight end. I'm excited to see where things look by the time they get to the spring game.
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