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Irish tight ends taking advantage of expanded role in Chip Long’s offense

| Friday, October 5, 2018

Kyle Rudolph.

Tyler Eifert.

Ben Koyack.

Troy Niklas.

Notre Dame’s history of tight ends runs deep, going so far as to earn it the nickname “Tight End U.” And that history of producing strong tight ends is something that the Irish (5-0) have been expanding on this season, with a stable of ends who made their presence known from Week 1.

Graduate student Nic Weishar and senior Alizé Mack lead a corps of four players that have tallied 228 receiving yards and four touchdowns so far this season, becoming some of the favorite targets of both senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and junior quarterback Ian Book.

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Irish sophomore tight end Cole Kmet rises up to make a catch on fourth down during Notre Dame’s 38-17 win over Stanford on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

However, with offensive coordinator Chip Long at the helm, this season, the Irish have implemented a new scheme in the red zone — or, more specifically, as Notre Dame calls it, the blue zone. Long floods the field with tight ends as the Irish approach the goal line, their blocking skills making it easier to create a path to the end zone. This season, the goal is for the tight ends to be the touchdown-scorers, especially from the 5-yard line in.

“[At the blue zone], we’re getting into some more direct snap, extra tight ends,” Kelly said Sept. 16.

Irish sophomore tight end Cole Kmet said Wednesday that, while opponents may begin to pick up on the fact that the Irish are going to employ their tight ends as their point scorers in short yardage, the skill and number of the players on the field makes up for being double-teamed.

“Even when you saw on [Nic Weishar’s] touchdown [against Stanford], they had two guys right on [sophomore tight end Brock Wright] because the last week they saw in Wake Forest, they’ve got to cover that, too,” Kmet said. “Coach Long does a great job giving us open-design plays that get us to the end zone.”

Kmet also noted the Irish have no shortage of blue-zone plays that target the tight ends.

He also added that the wide receivers are getting in on the action, too, as senior Miles Boykin and junior Chase Claypool are also becoming strong blockers when one of the tight ends gets his hands on the football.

“It’s really exciting, especially when you see Chase and Miles out there, you’ve got all those big bodies out there that can go out and get the ball, guys that are willing to block,” Kmet said. “Chase and Miles are showing they’re really good perimeter blockers as well, so it’s really exciting when we’ve got two tight ends out there.”

Kelly discussed the fact that Mack, in particular, has come leaps and bounds this season, both in terms of his maturity off the field and his success on the field. Mack was suspended for the Citrus Bowl in January and was also academically ineligible for his sophomore season.

“I think what’s happening to Alizé Mack is kind of what I’ve talked about is that his ability to handle the moment, his control over himself in the competitive mode is going to get better, got better and I think you’re going to see it continually progress to where he can be the kind of player that everybody has made him out to be, and maybe even in his own sense, right?” Kelly said Sept. 4. “I can see it in his eyes. I can see the way he works, works out and even in pregame. … I can see him growing and maturing in a competitive light that I didn’t see last year. I think you’re going to see growth as we continue to go through the year.”

Kelly also made headlines when he discussed Mack’s blocking ability after playing Vanderbilt, saying the Commodores played “block football,” cut blocking Mack throughout the game.

“We got a defensive end chopping him on every play, and he hung in there every play, was digging him out, blocking in line. None of the stuff that people see. But that’s what gets you to the next level,” Kelly said Sept. 18. “Not all this, you know, throw me the ball, catch the ball. Certainly, we know his physical ability of catching the football, but I’ll give that film to any NFL scout and show him what he can do. That was the best game he’s played since he’s been here.”

The tight ends also provide significant influence off the field and in the locker room, Weishar in particular, Kelly said.

“He means a lot to the group. He’s a leader. You know, look, I mean, everybody talks about this, but behind the walls, in the clubhouse, in the locker room, he is a very influential player on our football team,” Kelly said Sept. 15. “So when he gets in the game, it’s important to him, and when he makes plays, it sends a real positive feeling amongst our football team. … So, he really has a heartbeat for our football team.”

Overall, Kelly feels the Irish tight ends have been exceptional assets to the team, ones that Kelly feels lucky to have on his roster and able to balance when he’s utilizing them in the blue zone.

“I don’t remember having really the compliment of having the guy that can play in short yardage in Brock, and then having the moving parts that we do in the veteran Nic Weishar,” Kelly said. “[Mack and Kmet], two really multidimensional players at the tight end position … they just give us so much flexibility. That’s a luxury I can’t remember ever having.”

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About Elizabeth Greason

Elizabeth is a senior studying civil engineering from New York, NY (yes, the actual city). She is a proud resident assistant in McGlinn Hall and is a die-hard Mets and Giants fan. She is currently serving as assistant managing editor of The Observer and she also has an obsession with golf that is bordering on unhealthy.

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