Resilient Notre Dame TE Chase Hounshell adapts to new position

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

After four years, three positions and three shoulder surgeries, it looked like Chase Hounshell’s Notre Dame football career was over.

To make matters worse, it was a career that barely had a chance to begin. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound athlete appeared in just 11 games over four seasons, with three torn labrums jammed painfully in between. In January, with a prospective fifth season of eligibility looming in the distance, Hounshell assessed his future and saw no room for an injury-prone veteran on the Irish defensive line.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t think I’d be back here for my fifth year,” Hounshell said Monday. “I really didn’t. After everything I went through, I thought, ‘It’s time to hang up the pads, and let’s go on to the next step.’”

But if recent history has proven anything, it’s that Hounshell doesn’t quit.

Not after his first torn labrum, which he suffered during his freshman season in 2011.

And not after his second and third, which wiped out all but one game of the following two campaigns.

“After my first surgery, I thought, ‘You know, everyone pretty much gets a shoulder problem. I’ll move on,’” Hounshell recalled.

“After my second surgery, that’s when doctors were like, ‘Chase, you’ve got to be really careful here, because now you’re starting to mess with your future. I thought, ‘You know what, I’m not going to worry about it. I’m a strong kid. I’m a resilient kid. I’m going to come back.’

“After my third surgery, the doctors were like, ‘Chase, you should hang it up. You have a huge chance of not being able to throw a football with your son one day.”

Even now, that risk lingers. Why, then — despite his tumultuous injury history, despite the fact that he has already earned his degree, despite having to shift to a position that he hasn’t played since middle school — did Hounshell come back?

“No. 1 is the people — the teammates, the coaches here,” Hounshell said. “These are the best people you will ever meet in your entire life. These are the best teammates you will ever have, the best coaches you will ever have. Every single coach up there is like my second father.”

These days, the fifth-year senior is a first-year tight end, the result of a wild idea hatched by head coach Brian Kelly and strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo last winter.

And Hounshell, the consummate team player, wasn’t about to turn his second fathers down.

“I’ll do whatever the coaches ask me,” Hounshell said. “If they ask me to kick the ball, I’ll go learn how to kick.”

Thankfully, Hounshell was asked to contribute in a more realistic fashion, though he had only ever played offensive tackle and defensive end in high school, followed by defensive end and defensive tackle at Notre Dame.

Suddenly, he was running routes, catching passes and blocking linebackers.

And surprisingly, something clicked.

“I almost wish I switched a long time ago. I feel like a much more natural fit at tight end than I did on the D-line,” Hounshell said.

“It was a big jump. I’m used to, ‘Go in the B gap.’ But I got in my playbook, studying every night. I had extra meetings with (tight ends) Coach (Scott) Booker. Durham Smythe helped a lot. It was really putting in extra time.”

On the heels of his fifth (and now, definitely final) fall camp, the extra time is paying off. Hounshell is one of five Notre Dame tight ends with a realistic opportunity to contribute in 2015, each with a unique skill set.

As for Hounshell, he’ll likely use his considerable frame to bulldoze holes for Irish running backs.

“Chase Hounshell has done very well for us,” Kelly said. “Chase will play in certain situations. He’s physically the strongest player we have (at tight end). You’re not going to see him running down the middle of the field, catching a lot of footballs. He’ll have as many touches as the fullback would in an offense, in terms of catches. But he can block for us.”

Added Hounshell with a smile: “There’s no mystery that they’d rather have Durham running a 40-yard route instead of me, but we all have our strengths in the tight end room.”

But who knows? Hounshell wasn’t supposed to make the conversion to tight end, just as he wasn’t supposed to overcome three shoulder surgeries. In fact, he wasn’t supposed to be here at all.

Considering the circumstances, he isn’t ruling anything out.

“I never thought about scoring a touchdown,” Hounshell said. “I haven’t worked on my touchdown dance, just because I’m going to focus on getting a touchdown first.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Chase Hounshell, left, during Notre Dame Football Practice on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN