SOUTH BEND – Once upon a time, Notre Dame fancied itself Tight End U, which might finally be a fitting moniker again.
With a new offensive coordinator, new playbook and a crowded pecking order on the depth chart, the Irish are looking for dynamic play at tight end, a position that appeared to be losing impact in recent years.
That's a different story in 2017. At least eight practices into training camp.
“We think five tight ends are ready to play this year,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “We're playing them all. We see a lot of value in all of them being on the field.”
This is arguably Kelly's deepest group of tight ends in his tenure, with veterans Durham Smythe, Alizé Mack and Nic Weishar joined by a pair of four-star recruits in Brock Wright and Cole Kmet.
Where tight ends fit in is an annual issue. The last time an Irish tight end finished a season with at least 35 catches was 2012. The player? Dwenger graduate Tyler Eifert, who set school records at the position for catches and yards in a career.
Since Eifert's departure, only Troy Niklas, who had 32 catches for 498 yards and five touchdowns in 2013, has given the Irish much in the passing game. In addition, with Kelly's spread offense, he didn't need tight ends as much for blocking purposes.
Enter offensive coordinator Chip Long, who saw action at tight end during his playing career at North Alabama. Long's one season as a coordinator suggests Irish tight ends can expect to be more involved than in 2016, when Smythe's nine catches led the group.
Last year at Memphis, Long kept the tight ends busy. Tigers tight ends had 39 catches, 460 yards and five touchdowns.
“Utilized two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move toward with the great depth we have at that position,” Kelly said. “His ability to utilize the tight ends within the offensive structure (was a reason Long was hired). I didn't want somebody that was going to be four- and five-wide and just chucking it all over the place.”
With so much depth, Smythe or Weishar might come out of the backfield for plays. Mack, a 6-foot-5, 251-pound freak athlete, will also line up at receiver.
Mack's freshman season was in 2015, and – had he not been suspended in 2016 for academic reasons – he might already be an established No. 1 tight end. He averaged 14.6 yards per catch as a freshman and should at least add a viable deep threat in the middle of the field.
“He's a perfect fit,” Long said. “That's why I recruited him like crazy when I was (recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach) at Arizona State.”
Smythe, entering his senior season, brings experience, and Weishar, heading into his junior campaign, is another all-around presence.
Mack, Wright and Kmet offer hope of much-needed star power, and Kelly said Wednesday he especially likes Kmet's progress.
“He's had a strong two or three days,” Kelly said. “Now it's just knowledge of the offense and how quickly they can pick things up.”