The tight end position has been one of immense potential since the arrival of Alize Mack in 2015. He was a prized recruit, one of the jewels of his class, and was going to bring to the tight end position what Tyler Eifert left behind in 2012. A matchup nightmare, they said. Unstoppable in the red zone. While he’s been a useful player, he has not lived up to his preseason hype the past few years (although being a disappointment in 2016 stemmed from his season long suspension).
During 2015-2017, the tight ends have been largely replacement level. Solid players, but not difference makers, and not up to the caliber of an institution that proclaims itself Tight End U.
However, hope springs eternal, and the tight end position is, on paper, as stocked as it has been in the Kelly era and before. Mack, Cole Kmet, and Brock Wright, who figure to be the first three on the depth chart, boast an average 247 composite rating of .9656, high four star players, and a composite national rating of 72. Any school would love to have signed just one of these guys. Notre Dame has all three. With offensive coordinator Chip Long having an affinity for two tight end sets, could this be the year of the tight end?
During the 2017 recruiting process, Brock Wright was highlighted for his blocking. The old school type of tight end, who excelled while attached to the offensive line. So many of the modern tight ends are essentially large slot receivers. That’s not Wrights game. He was used as a goal line fullback last year, lined up in front of Josh Adams in the I-formation. He differs from Mack and Kmet in this regard, who are more receiving options and will be seen lined up in the slot or singled up on the outside in 3×1 sets.
Wright’s skills could be especially useful in assisting a revamped offensive line with a new left tackle. He can provide help as a pass blocker, but more importantly as a power player in the running game. He was able to perform in the spring in this capacity, but he was limited by a shoulder injury that needed surgery in the offseason. He participated just fine, but he was behind as far as weight training. Now fully healthy, he’s able to attack the offseason unabated.
I think he could be the Troy Niklas of this seasons team, if not the 2013 version, then the 2012 edition that provided a nice compliment to Tyler Eifert and was a stellar blocker for a strong running game.
Cole Kmet is a massive human. He can’t be out jumped at 6’5 1/2 and with arms like tree limbs. He can’t be outmuscled at 255. He’s also got the leg speed to beat linebackers up the seam. He’s a big problem. I compare him to Gronk because he’s not a twitchy athlete like Mack or Eifert were. He’s got a bit of a lumber to him. He doesn’t look fast, but then there he is separating from defenders. And once he’s got the ball in his hands, he’s not just tackled by one player. In the spring game, he caught an eight yard out in front of Julian Love, dismissed Love from the tackle, took on Daelin Hayes and Drue Tranquill, who looked like kids trying to take on their dad, and received Alohi Gilman with notable indifference, before being forced to step out of bounds. You’ll notice he’s never taken to the ground. The play ends with Kmet on his feet and handing the ball to the ref. This is a particular indignity for the defense. Four guys with clear shots and they couldn’t bring him down.
Gronk is a transcendent player and this is a comparison in style, not a prediction. But, because of this style, Kmet is the x-factor to this group. He needs to improve as a blocker, there’s no question about that. He hurt the team a couple of times in this area in the spring game. Here, he’s got a clean shot and the angle on Tranquill, he whiffs and Tranquill makes the tackle.
Obviously, that part of his game needs to evolve. But, he has the size and strength to do it, and his offensive coordinator is also his position coach. I feel confident he will at least be competent in that area.
Mack was the heir apparent to Eifert. Sure, Niklas and Koyack were nice, but they weren’t the exciting, dominating players Eifert was in 2011 and 2012. Mack was to be that guy. He was the second highest rated recruit in the 2015 class, behind Wimbush, and was ranked in the top 70 nationally. An injury to Durham Smythe in week 2 against Virginia thrust Mack into a starting role as a freshmen where he held his own, and was highlighted by some key fourth quarter catches against USC and Temple.
The hype train was full steam ahead following the spring of 2016 before Mack was suspended for the season due to academic troubles. He returned in 2017 and was largely a disappointment. He made some nice plays, and was underrated as a blocker, but was outplayed by the older Smythe, and never flashed the big play ability he was billed with as a recruit.
This spring was more of the same: laudatory comments from beat writers and buzzwords like “unguardable” and “matchup nightmare”. All that’s left is the performance to match the promise. He is a senior now, and this is something of a contract year. There is something to be said for the senior season; it tends to inspire a responsibility and accountability that just isn’t there in earlier seasons for some players.
Mack is a good blocker with the leg speed and ability to run the entire route tree. He’s got good size and soft hands. To be fair to him last season, he wasn’t exactly aided by stellar play at quarterback. Wimbush needs to be better to take advantage of what he has in Mack. But, for his part, Mack also needs to show his quarterback he can be trusted to catch the ball in tight spaces, something that didn’t happen last season.
Given the propensity of Chip Long to put tight ends on the field and the talent Notre Dame has at its disposal at the position, this could be a tight end led offense next season. And with the leading Irish receivers being 6-4 and 6-5 in Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin, there is a level of physicality this team can play with not even seen last season. They just need their talented group of tight ends to live up to their limitless potential.