Notre Dame loses one tight end to transfer while another won't return for a 6th-season. Depth for spring isn't ideal but there's clay to mold for 2016.
Returning Snaps from 2015: Weishar (286), A. Jones (239), Smythe (147)
Lost Snaps: Luatua (200), Hounshell (168)
Early Enrollee: None
Summer Arrival: None
Jack of All Trades
Durham Smythe went into last year as the No. 1 tight end and as we inch closer to spring practice there's still the widely held belief that he's the top dog at this position. However, as he heads into his redshirt junior season Smythe only carries with him 4 career receptions and as you can see above a couple of young tight ends made up some serious ground in experience once Smythe went down with injury after the Virginia game.
I think this is a big spring for Smythe because he hasn't separated himself from the rest of the pack nor developed into a future NFL player. From what we've seen he's more Ben Koyack than Kyle Rudolph. I don't think it's a given he'll walk right into a major role in 2016 without some improvement.
The good news for Smythe is that Notre Dame stays patient with its tight ends and once they get playing time they're almost always trusted to play a lot. Additionally, it's not like there's a deep roster of bodies and 4 or 5 other challengers vying to cut his playing time down.
It also never hurts to be well-rounded. Smythe has been a good blocker and pass catcher in his career but this spring is going to be more about how much others have caught up to him as a blocker or if their pass catching skills force less time from Smythe.
Make Way for Alize
It took a little while for true freshman Alize Jones to start making an impact last season. As the season progressed his playing time increased, although like so often happens, he wasn't used too much in certain games depending on the gameplan.
There's no doubt that Jones is the best pass catcher of this group, and it's probably not even close. His stats didn't blow anyone away in 2015 but he still doubled up the receptions of Smythe and Weishar combined. That's pretty good for a freshman.
The question for Alize is how much more physically developed he can be this spring as a blocker. If he makes strides in that department it will be very difficult to justify taking him off the field for anything other than a breather once in a while. No one should be surprised if Kelly & Co. speak glowingly of Jones as if he's the certified top tight end in the program after spring is completed.
To Use Two or Not to Use Two?
A couple of years ago two tight end sets became a championed formation for many Irish fans coming off the success of 2012 and Notre Dame's long history of talented players at this position. It was popular because it satisfied both the power run elements in addition to utilizing more tall and physical receivers.
Yet, since Tyler Eifert departed the program the two tight end sets have become less effective and more geared toward specific gameplans with a heavy emphasis on running the ball.
Notre Dame is in an interesting position this spring because there isn't great depth at tight end and the entire receiving corps is breaking in new starters. Let us not forget that Nic Weishar is in the mix at tight end, too. Who would have thought he'd lead everyone in snaps at this position last year? The Weishar/Smythe/Jones trio is a very nice collection of talent--and it's expected someone else moves to tight end to add depth--but is it good enough where two tight ends should be used frequently and take away from the young talent at receiver?