Our position by position analysis of the 2016 Notre Dame football roster continues today with one of the more disappointing positions from the 2015 season – tight end. Despite the Notre Dame offense performing at its highest level of the Brian Kelly Era, the Notre Dame tight ends didn’t contribute much to the offensive outburst outside of their blocking. Will the fortunes of the Irish tight ends change in 2016?
Let’s find out by starting by running through the depth chart.
Notre Dame 2016 Tight End Depth
Depth. When Notre Dame lost Durham Smythe for most of the regular season in week two against UVA last fall, Notre Dame was as green at tight end as they’ve been in years. Tyler Luatua served as an extra offensive lineman basically, Alize Jones saw some action but wasn’t quite ready as a true freshman to be a starting tight end, and Nic Weishar did not do much to establish himself.
A year later, every tight end is back for Notre Dame except Chase Hounshell. Notre Dame will replace Hounshell, a former defensive lineman, with another former defensive lineman – Jacob Matuska. Notre Dame nearly lost Luatua to transfer in the off-season but he changed his mind and will be back with Notre Dame in the fall. Hounshell only recorded a single catch last fall making his loss minimal. The top four tight ends all have real game experience giving Notre Dame an experienced depth chart.
Experience. Smythe’s injury was one of the more overlooked among the myriad of injuries Notre Dame faced last fall. His loss thrust a group of young tight ends into roles they weren’t quite ready for. As a result, the production at tight end for a school that had earned the nickname Tight End U fell off drastically. The only touchdown any Notre Dame tight end caught in 2015 came from Smythe on a fake field goal against UVA.
Last year’s trial by fire for Notre Dame’s tight ends should pay off this season. So should Smythe’s return. This is a group that has experience now. They just have yet to produce the kind of results Notre Dame tight ends have been known to produce in recent years.
Athletic Ability. The biggest area of potential improvement at tight end this year is the development of Alize Jones and the potential gamebreaking ability he can add to the Irish offense. Jones is every bit as athletic as Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert and can be a match-up nightmare for opposing defenses if used properly. As a freshman Jones hauled in 13 passes for 190 yards with a 45 yarder against Temple the highlight. That play would have been an easy touchdown too if Torii Hunter had been able to keep the ball in play but Jones had to do some tiptoeing just to stay in bounds.
Jones might not be quite ready for a huge breakout season – and Durham Smythe will stake his claim to playing time as well – but he should improve on his rookie totals pretty easily. The Mackey Award agrees apparently as they have Jones on their pre-season watch list. Notre Dame experimented with Jones lining up as a wide receiver in the spring so both should be on the field at the same time plenty in the fall.
Nothing. I racked my brain for a while and couldn’t come up with anything where Notre Dame is worse off at tight end in 2016 than they were in 2015. If Notre Dame stays healthy they have a potential great combo tight end in Smythe, a potential gamebreaker in Jones, and a damn good inline blocker in Luatua. One could argue this group is still all potential and they’d be right. The same could have been said of the tight ends last year as well though so for the sake of this article, there isn’t anything worse with the tight ends in 2016.
Coaching. One could also argue that the coaching at tight end is a real concern since the production at the position dropped around the same time Scott Booker took over the position when Mike Denbrock moved over to wide receivers. But again, the coaching is the same this year as it was last year. At the same time, Booker also hasn’t had a Tyler Eifert type talent to work with and a year ago he lost his only experienced tight end in week two. With Smythe, Jones, Weishar, Luatua, and Matuska on the roster though, there really is no reason for Notre Dame to lack production from the tight end again this year.
This one should be pretty easy to guess. Notre Dame is clearly better at tight end in 2016 given the health, depth, and potential of the position. Jones specifically is going to be a lot of fun to watch and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if we see him play in a very similar role to how Kelly and staff used Eifert in 2012. Smythe should not be overlooked either. He came in with a good bit of hype and was expected to play a big role in last year’s offense before succumbing to injury. Notre Dame might not jump right back to the level of production it got from the likes of Eifert, Rudolph, Carlson, and Fasano; but it would be a major disappointment if this group did not vastly exceed their 2015 production.
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