Notre Dame had one hell of a run of tight ends from 2005-2014 with six consecutive starting tight ends getting drafted. Five of of the six were even second round picks or better. Since then, however, production at the position has been virtually non-existent. That should change in 2017 with the talent Notre Dame has at the position.
The return of “Tight End U” could have very well happened this year for Notre Dame if not for the suspension of Alize Jones. The sophomore was suspended for the entire season in August. With Jones sidelined, no one stepped up and seized the opportunity. Durham Smythe, Nic Weishar, and Tyler Luatua combined for just 12 catches for 159 yards. Smythe was a red-zone weapon at least with four touchdowns among his nine receptions.
Jones was expected to be a playmaker for Notre Dame in 2016. A truly gifted athlete would could work the middle of the field or split wide in the mold of Tyler Eifert. The good news is the at Jones was still able to practice with the team so he won’t have to get into playing shape again and should be able to step right in in spring practice.
Jones also exhibited one of the best attitudes from any player who has been suspended for academic reasons I can ever remember. When Everett Golson was kicked out of school for a semester, he went into exile. Jones on the other hand was all over social media offering his teammates support and positive messaging. He has already gotten the team to pick up the hashtag #tictoc since the ’16 season ended counting down to 2017.
The loss of Jones was bigger than many expected it would be in 2016. With the young and inexperienced wide receivers, Notre Dame could have used a big, fast target like Jones to garner attention from opposing defenses. Having him back in 2017 to team with Kevin Stepherson’s downfield speed and Equanimeous St. Brown’s freakish athleticism, Brandon Wimbush will have targets a plenty to choose from.
Elite Freshmen Coming In
In addition to Jones, Notre Dame will have a pair of elite freshmen on the roster at tight end next fall. Brock Wright, the highest rated recruit in Notre Dame’s class currently, just tore up Under Armour All-American Bowl practices last week. He showed his skill as a receiver and a blocker in the game on Sunday as well. Wright even drew the praise of NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders during the week.
Wright isn’t the only All American tight end in this year’s class, however. Cole Kmet is busy doing all he can to make sure his classmate and friend don’t outdo him while he prepares for the US Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio. Kmet isn’t ranked quite as high as Wright, but is still a 4-star recruit and All-American in his own right though.
Even though Notre Dame has two All-American tight ends in this class, Irish fans shouldn’t be worried in the slightest about either wavering. The two have become very close throughout the recruiting process. Additionally, they have spoken regularly about being excited to play together and how the two compliment each other. Kmet is considered more of the detached tight end who could be split out wide, while Wright is the more traditional tight end who will attached to the line more often than not.
Wright will enroll early at Notre Dame when classes resume along with four other early enrollees. Because he is advanced as a blocker and will have a full off-season and spring to develop, he could see the field very early in his Notre Dame career.
Don’t You Forget About Me
Durham Smythe was set to be Notre Dame’s top tight end in 2015 before injuring his knee and shoulder in week two against Virginia and missing the rest of the regular season. When Jones’s suspension was announced in August, it was assumed that the time was now for Smythe.
While things didn’t exactly work out that way for the Texas native, he still has a year of eligibility remaining and could return for a 5th season in 2017 to provide Notre Dame depth and another red-zone option. Only St. Brown and Stepherson caught more touchdowns for Notre Dame in 2016.
Luatua and Weishar will be seniors in 2017.
A New Voice Leading the Notre Dame Tight Ends
There are a lot of reasons for the drop off in production from the tight end position for Notre Dame, but the significant fall off once Scott Booker took over coaching the tight ends from Mike Denbrock can’t be overlooked. Eifert did have a stellar 2012 season under Booker, but Eifert was already a star when Booker took over the tight ends in 2012. Booker also did get a lot out of converted defensive end Troy Niklas in 2013 but since then, the production just hasn’t been there.
Booker won’t be back in 2017 more so for the train wreck special teams were in 2016, but regardless there will be a new tight ends coach at Notre Dame in 2017. Mike Denbrock will be the offensive coordinator at Cincinnati and Mike Sanford is the new head coach at Western Kentucky. That means that no one that coached the tight ends or had a say in the Notre Dame passing game in 2016 will be back in 2017 except Brian Kelly.
It is assumed that Chip Long – Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator – will also coach the tight ends given his background. Long will have a lot to work with.
Notre Dame Tight Ends Produce in the NFL
While the production of tight ends on the Notre Dame roster has fallen off, it hasn’t stopped the Irish alum in the NFL from making their presence felt.
- Anthony Fasano – Yes, Fasano is still playing the NFL. He just wrapped up his 11th season and while he is in the twilight of his career, he still played in all 16 games this season. He scored two touchdowns too boot giving him 35 for his career.
- John Carlson – Unfortunately, Carlson isn’t still playing but it isn’t necessarily by choice. Carlson was forced into retirement prior to the 2015 season after multiple head injuries.
- Kyle Rudolph – Set career highs with 83 receptions and 840 yards this season while adding 7 touchdowns. Only Dennis Pita and Travis Kelce caught more passes this season at the tight end position than Rudolph. He narrowly missed his second Pro Bowl nod to Jordan Reed and Greg Olsen (yes, that Greg Olsen).
- Tyler Eifert – Another injury plagued season for Eifert. Still reeled in 5 touchdowns despite playing only 8 games. When healthy, he is one of the most dynamic tight ends in the game.
- Troy Niklas – The lone disappointment of the group. Niklas caught one pass for no yards this season and has less than 100 career receiving yards through three seasons.
- Ben Koyack – “Redshirted” his rookie season but came on down the stretch for the Jaguars. Finished his sophomore season with his first career touchdown in the season finale.
Notre Dame has the talent on the roster for 2017 to add to that list in the near future. The age old question remains to whether or not this staff will get the most out of it.