Blend Of Old And New Highlight Deep Notre Dame Tight End Corps
On paper, no school the past four years has recruited better at tight end than Notre Dame.
In 2014, senior Nic Weishar (6-4 ¾, 243) was a Parade and Max Preps first-team All-American while becoming the all-time catch leader in Illinois. In 2015, Alize Mack (6-4 ¾, 251) was the USA Today first-team All-American, and ranked No. 1 or 2 by multiple scouting outlets at his position.
Despite being academically ineligible last season, Mack already is still projected to be the sixth Notre Dame tight end since 2006 to be selected in the first two rounds
This winter the Fighting Irish reeled in Rivals.com’s No. 1 tight end in Brock Wright (6-4 ½, 254), an early entrant this spring, and the No. 3-ranked tight end in Cole Kmet (6-5 ½, 256), also an outstanding baseball player who weighed in at 256 pounds. They were the two highest-rated recruits in Notre Dame’s 21-man harvest.
Almost lost in the shuffle is fifth-year senior Durham Smythe (6-6 ½, 257). He enrolled in 2013 with the least fanfare among the quintet as a Rivals three-star player, but his 15 career starts, including all 12 last year, are easily the most at the position. With Mack shelved last year, Smythe’s 633 unofficial snaps in 2016 (52.8 per game) dwarfed No. 2 Weishar’s 262. Yet it was Weishar who led the tight ends in snaps as a 2015 sophomore with 286 while the freshman Mack had 239 — because it was Smythe who was then shelved with injuries.
Smythe began his career in 2013 behind current NFL players Troy Niklas (Arizona) and Ben Koyack (Jacksonville). He doesn’t plan on taking a back seat now, but will say that the tight end position has never been stronger in his five seasons with the Irish.
“We’ve had stars at the top early in my career — we had Troy, we had Ben — but I think this group as a whole is the most talented throughout, top to bottom,” Smythe said. “Freshmen coming weighing 250 pounds, physically way more advanced than a lot of guys that have come in in the past. This group has a lot of depth and a lot of talent.”
Head coach Brian Kelly concurs that the combination of a veteran offensive line with 76 career starts and the tight end corps that has gradually upgraded its blocking acumen might be the team’s strongest assets in 2017.
“We're going to rely on an outstanding offensive line,” Kelly said. “We think five tight ends are all capable and ready to play this year.”
Consequently, more multiple-tight end formations are expected to be a staple of the 2017 offense. During the second half of the initial practice on Monday, the Irish frequently had Smythe and Mack in the lineup in the 12 personnel grouping (one running back, two tight ends), with junior Equanimeous St. Brown and Arizona State graduate transfer Cameron Smith the primary wideouts.
Mack often was utilized in motion, and the coaches will attempt to complement the myriad skill sets of the options presented at tight end. Smythe and Mack can both be used in-line for the running game in the 12 alignment, or line up in the slots, forcing a defense to make decisions on whether to use a nickel package against the run or match up a linebacker or safety with the tight ends.
“That’s definitely the goal in our room — as many as we can get on the field at one time,” said Smythe of the tight ends. “We have a lot of guys who can do a little bit of everything. Guys who really excel in the slot, guys who excel in-line, and I think with this offense we’ll be able to focus on those for individual guys.
"Some guys will work in the slot, some guys will do a little bit of both, some guys will work in-line. It depends on who you’re talking about individually, but there are a lot of combinations that highlight each other.”
Notre Dame tight ends caught only 12 passes last season (the fewest since snaring six in 2001), with Smythe hauling in nine of them, highlighted by four touchdowns. The numbers are expected to increase significantly this year, especially because first-year tight ends coach Chip Long also is the play-caller. It's not about "favoritism," but his background has seen extensive use of the tight end, and never has he had the cupboard better stocked there than this year.
“It is nice having the play-caller in our room telling us exactly what he’s looking for and such,” Smythe said. “That is something that we all are, in our room, very excited about.
“He’s a guy who’s played tight end in college, has coached tight ends throughout his career, and he knows how to elevate guys’ games. We’ve seen that since the spring … there are instances where he really knows how to utilize the tight end within an offense, which means utilizing him a little more in his case. There are some benefits, at least in our room, for having a guy like him.”