When Ben Koyack was drafted in the 7th round, he extended Notre Dame's run of NFL draftees at the position to a ridiculous six starters drafted in the past decade. But while the Irish seemingly always replace the draftees with a new, productive talent, it isn't always who you would expect - and with a wide open race 2015 might be no exception.
In researching this Tight End U piece, what was staggering was just how much talent had been on campus in South Bend outside of the drafted starters. There have been talented transfers like Greg Olsen, Konrad Reuland, Joe Fauria, and Will Yeatman that ended up graduating from different programs and have gone on to play on Sundays. Then there have been talented recruits that battled injuries or a loaded depth chart like Mike Ragone and Alex Welch.
At one point many of those players looked like the future of the tight end position at Notre Dame, but ultimately it didn't work out - so with a grand total of zero starts for the tight end position group, and a potentially different look on offense, assuming any one player is the heir apparent might be a fool's errand- but here's odds on the next standout.
Durham Smythe - 3:2
Smythe is the clear favorite to become a starter entering his third year in the program, but begins the season with a lot to prove. Relative to expectations, Smythe may have disappointed a little last year - but mostly due to a lot of hype as a "breakout candidate" after a lot of praise by the coaching staff while redshirting his freshman year.
With Ben Koyack taking firm hold of the starting job and Tyler Luatua gaining use as an H-back, Smythe did not receive a ton of snaps. He did record his first reception at Arizona State - but that was it. Still, Smythe continues to add the good weight needed to become a better blocker, and Brian Kelly stated he was "the number one tight end in all facets" this spring. It may be a little bit of a now or never situation for Smythe with a lot of young talent chasing him, but it's his job to lose.
Aliz'e Jones - 4:1
If these were odds for which tight end has the best chance of being drafted, Jones would be the heavy favorite. The Bishop Gorman grad catches everything and is a walking mismatch - if Devin Funchess can be a second round pick, Aliz'e has at least the same potential.
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The question this fall is the competition - can he quickly establish himself as a top receiving option? He'll have to prove his blocking ability, and while on any other roster he'd see immediate work split out wide near the goal line, Notre Dame has a Corey Robinson. By the end of the season I think Jones will have worked his way into more snaps, but it may take some time for the staff to figure out when and how to use him.
Tyler Luatua - 5:1
A shift to more power spread concepts might benefit Luatua the most - as a true freshman he quickly found a role as a very capable blocker out of the backfield as an H-back. This spring Luatua was listed at 250 pounds, although that seems light - the guy has tree trunks for legs, and although he didn't catch a pass in 2015, he's a good bet to see lots of playing time and a chance to expand his role.
Is the slight drop in weight (Luatua was reported as high as 260 last season) a sign Luatua may be in for an expanded role in the passing game? He may not have the best hands in the position group, but he'll definitely see time with his blocking, and could certainly be a red zone weapon with his frame.
Nic Weishar - 8:1
After a redshirt season, Weishar is another player that similar to Jones is more likely to see time split out as a jumbo receiver. As with many young tight ends, Weishar needs to put on size, but is up to 241 pounds after a year with Paul Longo.
The advantages? Weishar was likely the second-best receiving tight end in spring camp, and has a year of coaching and development on Jones. But the same challenges that Aliz'e faces in getting playing time apply equally to Weishar, so unless Brian Kelly wants to go full Stanford (Important Note: Never go full Stanford) there just doesn't seem like enough snaps to go around for Weishar to emerge in 2015.
Mike Heuerman / Chase Hounshell - 20:1
Two very different players seem to be relative longshots for playing time, but for very different reasons. Heuerman's profile as a recruit showed a player with solid blocking skills that needed to add weight and had the frame to become a detached receiver. But at 225 pounds after two years in the program and some bad injury luck, the question has to be asked if he'll ever be able to pack on the weight to play an H-back role.
Hounshell has also been plagued by terrible injury luck, and deserves a ton of credit for switching positions and working tirelessly to revive his career at tight end. But with a roster crunch and six tight ends on the roster, it's more likely that Hounshell is a strong locker room presence if he stays on campus or could look elsewhere to finish his career.