Best 1-2 (And More) Notre Dame Tight End Combinations
Throughout this week, the tight end position was analyzed on Blueandgold.com., both collectively and individually.
It is projected to be a team strength in 2017 because of the combination of quality and quantity, led by fifth-year senior Durham Smythe and junior Alize Mack. Smythe started all 12 games last season, while Mack, ineligible in 2016, is rated the nation’s No. 3 tight end by Lindy’s Sports based on his 2015 production as a freshman and immense potential.
As a bonus, the Irish also have two seniors at the position who were consensus four-star recruits in Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, a duo capable of starting at a lot of Power 5 Conference schools. Weishar became the all-time receptions leader in Illinois history and has played over 500 snaps the past two seasons. Luatua’s blocking as a freshman was vital during Notre Dame’s 2014 Music City Bowl win over LSU.
Finally, the freshman class boast the No. 1 tandem in the nation in Brock Wright and Cole Kmet, the two highest ranked recruits in this year’s Fighting Irish harvest. Wright was an early entrant whose skills were evident this spring, while Kmet also is a top pitcher in baseball.
Consequently, multiple tight end formations promise to be a huge staple of the 2017 Notre Dame offense. That prompts the question: What have been the best Notre Dame tandems, or multiple tight end teams, ever at a school that has been “Tight End U.” since the 1970s?
Here’s a decade-by-decade look, with the following criteria:
• Number of tight ends who were regulars in the lineup.
• Production (catching and blocking) by not just one player, but at least two.
• Impact on team record.
1970s: 1978 (Dean Masztak, Dennis Grindinger, Kevin Hart, Nick Vehr, Marty Detmer)
The easy answer on paper is 1977, featuring Walter Camp Award winner Ken MacAfee, who also was third in the Heisman balloting for the national champs. However, he was more of a solo act, catching 54 of the 56 passes at tight end, although Mark Czaja became a valued blocked.
The year after MacAfee graduated and Czaja was medically redshirted, it was a true committee with the above quintet combining for 39 receptions that averaged 14.4 yards per catch. Their contribution helped the Irish finish No. 7 in the country while playing the No. 1-ranked schedule in the land.
The freshman Masztak (16 catches, 285 yards) was a budding star like Mack is now, while Grindinger (16 catches, 177 yards, two scores) was a Smythe-like figure who also happened to hail from Texas. Hart was the son of 1949 Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner Leon Hart.
Finally, a special mention to the 1973 national champs with Hall of Famer Dave Casper and Robin Weber.
Casper caught 22 passes and Weber two — including maybe the most famous one in school history in the Sugar Bowl victory versus Alabama for the national title — but their blocking prowess was just as valued.
1980s: 1984 (Mark Bavaro, Ricky Gray)
This senior tandem was crucial to Notre Dame turning around a 3-4 start with a 7-4 regular season that ended with upsets of SEC champ LSU in Baton Rouge, Penn State and at Pac-10 champ USC (the first win in 18 years by the Irish at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum).
First-team Associated Press All-American Bavaro — recently nominated for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame — caught a team high 32 passes (395 yards). Gray, a former Parade All-American, transferred from Clemson to Notre Dame, and was vital to the late success while nabbing 13 passes for 159 yards as the Irish went more double tight end during their strong close to the season.
Special mention to the highly recruited duo of freshman Derek Brown and sophomore Frank Jacobs for the 1988 national champs, even though they combined for only 15 catches in the run-oriented offense.
1990s: 1991 (Derek Brown, Irv Smith, Oscar McBride)
The senior Brown and junior Smith would both become first-round NFL draft picks, while third-team sophomore McBride would play a couple of years in the NFL as well.
Head coach Lou Holtz often was castigated for not using the tight ends more as receivers, but Brown (23 catches, 326 yards) and Smith (seven catches, 90 yards) caught four TDs apiece, including one by Smith in the Sugar Bowl victory versus No. 3 Florida. The eight combined TDs by the two set a single season school record by tight ends at Notre Dame, which later would be tied in 2013.
Underrated was their blocking skills, which is why two tight-end formations often were used, especially when fullback Jerome Bettis romped for 150 yards and three fourth-quarter TDs in the aforementioned defeat of the Gators.
2000s: 2005 (Anthony Fasano, John Carlson)
The senior Fasano and junior Carlson would both become second-round picks in first-year head coach Charlie Weis’ tight-end friendly attack.
While there was a huge disparity in catches between the two — Fasano had 47 catches for 576 yards and two scores while Carlson had seven grabs for 56 yards and a TD — Carlson started six times in a double-tight end alignment, and played extensively in the other contests as well. This duo helped Notre Dame finish in the Associated Press Top 10 (No. 9) for the first time in 12 years.
Special mention to the next season. After Fasano graduated, Carlson caught the same amount of passes (47 for 634 yards and four scores) while senior Marcus Freeman (nine catches, 98 yards and two TDs) was a strong complement to the attack during a 10-3 campaign.
2010s: 2012 (Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas)
Similar to 2005 with Fasano/Carlson, the disparity in receptions was pronounced. Mackey Award winner and first-round pick Eifert snagged team highs in passes (50), receiving yards (685) and TD catches (4), while Niklas caught only five passes for 75 yards and a score.
However, second-round pick and sophomore Niklas — converted from defense, where he played as a freshman — also started eight times in the double-tight end formation and was used for his in-line blocking during a 12-0 regular season in which the Irish eclipsed 200 yards rushing for the first time in 12 years.
Two special mentions: In 2010 under first-year coach Brian Kelly, the tandem of Kyle Rudolph (28 catches) and Eifert (27) became the first in school history to have two tight ends catch at least 20 passes in one year. Rudolph missed the second half of the season with an injury — but Mike Ragone then became an excellent blocking tight end when Kelly went to two-tight end sets for the first time that year en route to a 4-0 finish.
In 2013, Niklas and junior Ben Koyack combined for 42 receptions that averaged a whopping 16.6 yards and tied the Brown/Smith single season mark of eight TDs.