Waking the Echoes: ‘Tight End U’ rooted in Notre Dame history
Brian Plamondon | Thursday, September 17, 2015
It might be an invented, much-debated moniker, but Notre Dame’s status as “Tight End U” seems to ring true after 40 years of evidence.
With a strong foundation in the 1970s, the Irish have now had five tight ends become first or second-round NFL draft picks over the last decade. While these recent tight ends have put up prolific numbers on the stat sheet, the origins of Notre Dame’s dominance at the position go back to a time when blocking was a tight end’s primary duty.
Dave Casper was the first Irish player to bring prominence to the position when he tallied 21 receptions for 335 yards and four touchdowns en route to team offensive MVP honors in 1973, a season that culminated in a national championship.
Casper’s exploits were followed by the sterling career of Ken MacAfee, who was a three-time All-American from 1975 to 1977.
Notre Dame’s tight end legacy continued into the 1980s, with Mark Bavaro garnering All-America honors during the 1984 season before winning two Super Bowls with the New York Giants, a team that inducted him into its Ring of Honor in 2011.
The biggest thing all three have in common, however, is that none of them came to Notre Dame thinking they would end up at tight end. Casper actually earned honorable mention All-American honors as an offensive tackle the season before he broke out at tight end. MacAfee and Bavaro said they were recruited at other positions but settled at tight end to appease their coaches.
“I was a wide receiver and a defensive tackle — kind of a strange combination,” MacAfee said. “Coming to Notre Dame, the coaches said, ‘Hey, we’ll probably utilize you as a tight end and a wideout,’ … but it wasn’t until my junior year that it was completely the tight end position.”
“I wanted to be a linebacker,” Bavaro said. “I don’t think tight end was the huge, premier position that it’s become. … But when you’re 18 years old and coaches say the best way to get on the field is to play [tight end], you play it. It’s not that I didn’t like tight end; I loved tight end. … But back then tight end was essentially an extra offensive lineman that was eligible for passes.”
In today’s modern NFL, the tight end is often split out wide and targeted just as often as receivers; one has to look no further than the statistics of players like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, occasionally eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark and hauling in 10 or more touchdowns in a season. During the 1970s and 1980s, though, tight ends wouldn’t see the field if they couldn’t block efficiently.
“First and foremost, the tight end was there to block,” Bavaro said. “Back then it was 75, 80 percent of the requirement of the position. … If you couldn’t block, you were pretty useless.
“That has transformed over time to something I don’t even recognize anymore.”
The shift in the utilization isn’t something totally unforeseen in football; Notre Dame passed the ball on 49 percent of their offensive snaps in 2014 compared to just 32 percent in MacAfee’s senior year. This has been a trend across all of football, and more pass attempts equates to a need for more weapons on the field. To the Notre Dame tight end greats, however, blocking was what made them the most useful at the time.
“I was never just purely a receiver,” Bavaro said. “It was a fun part of the game, but it was like dessert after the main meal playing football, which was blocking.”
Bavaro, MacAfee and Casper have been entrenched in Notre Dame lore for decades, but have been joined in the 21st century by the likes of Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas.
MacAfee has ideas as to how Notre Dame began to churn out top-tier tight ends, but doesn’t know for certain.
“It may have been perpetuated when Dave Casper started and I followed him, and then the tight ends that came along after me that had good statistics, caught the ball and were utilized in the offense,” MacAfee said. “Once that’s established, these kids that are getting recruited, they look at that.
“I think when they see the ball is being thrown to a tight end at a certain school, they’re going to pay more attention to that school and follow it through the year.”
Bavaro, on the other hand, isn’t so sure how Notre Dame turned into “Tight End U”. Nevertheless, he’s consistently impressed with the coaching staff finding players that can live up to the name.
“[Notre Dame] always seems to have a stud,” Bavaro said. “It’s year after year. Once one goes, there’s somebody there to replace him immediately. There’s almost no incubation time, these guys are waiting in line. While the great one is playing this season, they’re not going out and recruiting somebody in a year or two — they already have somebody there who’s kind of waiting in the wings to take over.”