Tight end corps endures growing pains
Greg Hadley | Friday, November 6, 2015
While its profile may have fallen slightly, “Tight End U” is still in session for No. 5 Notre Dame.
Over the past decade, Irish tight ends have consistently been listed among the best in the nation and gone on to play in the NFL. Anthony Fasano, Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack all finished their Notre Dame careers with at least 35 receptions and five touchdowns.
This season, however, the Irish tight end corps has been distinctly low-profile. After initial starter junior Durham Smythe went down with an injury against Virginia, the spot has been split four ways between freshman Alizé Jones, graduate student Chase Hounshell and sophomores Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua. Each one has a start to his name and played in at least five games.
While none of the four have put up the kind of numbers their predecessors did, they each have chipped in to keep the spot productive.
“We all bring different traits to the offense, being different tight ends,” said Luatua, who missed time earlier this season with a concussion. “I need to work on being a more complete tight end, and we have different guys who specialize in different areas.”
Specifically, Luatua said he and Hounshell are more effective as blockers in the run game, while Jones and Weishar thrive as pass catchers.
Jones in particular has emerged as the most likely of the bunch to follow in the footsteps of offensive weapons such as Eifert and Carlson. He has 10 receptions this season, including a 35-yarder against USC and a 45-yarder last week against Temple, both of which set up fourth-quarter scores.
The last time the Irish did not have a tight end among their top five in receptions, Bob Davie was finishing his final season in 2001. Jones currently ranks sixth on the team, six catches behind fifth-place Torii Hunter Jr.
“I’m really starting to get comfortable with the offense and playing on the big stage of the college level, so when I’m out there, I feel like I got a little groove,” Jones said after the win over Temple. “I was telling the guys, it feels like I’m in high school again. That all comes from the team though. They all help me out. I had a rough start to the season, I’m still young, but my teammates are pulling me through.”
Jones’s fast start has impressed his teammates, especially Weishar, who spent his freshman season on the scout team.
“I think he’s doing a great job with it,” Weishar said of Jones’s transition to the college game. “With the four tight ends, you never really know when you’re going to get put in, but when you do, you gotta know what you’re doing. And we all have our mess ups in practice obviously, but I think Alizé is doing a really good job with that, especially as a freshman.”
The key to Jones’s success, as well as Weishar’s improvement, is the ability to take mental reps in practice, even when not on the field with the rest of the first team, the sophomore said.
Weishar has yet to catch a pass on the road this season, but he has improved his blocking technique from last year, which has helped him see more time on the field.
“[Last year], I wasn’t much of a blocker in practice; I was still running a lot of routes and still trying to figure out my way to be a great blocker,” Weishar said. “I’m obviously far away from being a great blocker now too, but I think I’m getting better each week, and that’s my goal … just to better my technique and better my physicality to be able to complete myself as a tight end.”
On the opposite side of that divide, Hounshell and Luatua have yet to record a reception between them this year. Instead, they make their impact as alongside the offensive line, blocking for senior running back C.J. Prosise.
Hounshell’s willingness to mix it up in the trenches is hardly a surprise, seeing as he spent the first four years of his career at Notre Dame as a defensive lineman. And Luatua said the punishing aspect of blocking has long been part of his identity as a football player.
“Just having two brothers … I feel like we’ve always been bumping heads, going up in football too. That’s a kind of physicality I bring out here,” he said.
Under coach Scott Booker, the importance of being a complete player is foremost for the tight ends. At the same time, however, with so many players with specific skillsets, there is no conflict over playing time, according to Luatua and Weishar. Instead, it has brought the group closer together.
“Yeah we all hang out, especially with Chase being a fifth-year, he has his own house off-campus,” Luatua said. “I feel like we’re pretty tight as a group. We mess around, we all lock in at the same time when we need to, but we’re all pretty tight as a group … outside of football.”