Chase Hounshell's heart helped set standard for Irish

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He was told repeatedly that there would never be a Senior Day for him, never an emotional last run out of the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel to the family who so staunchly stood by Chase Hounshell when he was prescribed to put away his dreams for good.

Three surgeries in a small window on the same shoulder for one labrum tear after another robbed him of essentially two complete seasons and every drop of equity that the then-defensive lineman had earned with the Irish coaches during some productive flashes his freshman season, in 2011.

Yet last winter, the Kirtland, Ohio, product marched into coach Brian Kelly’s office with a plan to reinvent himself as a tight end, four years removed from being part of a ground-breaking, defensive line recruiting haul that promised to and delivered the missing piece for a national title run.

“He was not promised a scholarship,” Kelly said Thursday evening after practice as the CFP No. 4 and AP sixth-ranked Irish (8-1) prepped for Saturday’s Senior Day matchup with Wake Forest (3-6). “I pretty much told him that we didn’t know if we would have one and he’d pretty much have to come back on good faith and work his way through spring.

“He said, ‘I’ll do that and I’ll take my chances.’ And you’ve got to give a young man credit for that.

“He wanted to be part of the program, and he’s respected by everybody because of the way he did that and went about his business every single day and worked at it and came back from three surgeries and three rehab situations to earn a scholarship in his fifth year.

“So whether he played a down or not, that’s a lot to accomplish.”

And Hounshell has played and contributed significantly at a position that’s come to define Notre Dame (Tight End U.) in the past decade.

But it’s also one that was first hit hard by Ben Koyack’s graduation last spring and, in mid-September, by the only member of the 2015 tight end corps who had a career catch on his college résumé, junior Durham Smythe, being lost for the season with a knee injury.

Hounshell, now a grad student whose penchant is blocking but who would love to garner his first career catch on Saturday, has played in all nine games this season, with starts against USC and Temple, after amassing cameos in just 11 games total in his first four years on campus — seven of those coming his freshman season.

“My only regret has been that I didn’t switch to tight end freshman year,” Hounshell said. “It’s been amazing.

“You have all these mind-sets when you’re 18 years old and a freshman. After my first game, I was like ‘I’m going to be a starter next week, and the week after that a first-round draft pick. I’m going to be so good.’

“Obviously, you can’t predict that I’m going to have three shoulder surgeries in a row or anything like that, but it’s really just dealing with adversity, and just God has a plan. And you’ve just got to work your butt off, and it’s all going to work out in the end.”

It took going against his doctors’ strong recommendations and some extreme twists of fate out of his hands, though, to allow all of that to happen.

Notre Dame’s offseason roster was overflowing beyond the projected NCAA scholarship limit of 85 well into summer.

And that was with expected early deletions such as safety Eilar Hardy’s transfer to Bowling Green, no fifth year options offered to players such as cornerbacks Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson as well as defensive end Anthony Rabasa, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels leaving for the NFL Draft, and offensive lineman Conor Hanratty’s retirement for medical reasons.

But it took even more unexpected ones to get the number low enough for Hounshell to have the opportunity to be awarded a scholarship for 2015.

That included grad-style transfers Everett Golson (Florida State) and Matt Hegarty (Oregon), medical hardships for tight end Mike Heuerman and linebacker Michael Deeb, the release from a national letter-of-intent for February defensive end signee Bo Wallace (Arizona State), and the transferring out of defensive ends Jhonny Williams (Toledo) and Kolin Hill (Texas Tech) as well as running back Greg Bryant (ASA Miami).

Yet the numbers, even when severely stacked against him, have never fazed Hounshell. Maybe that’s part of being from an athletic family and one that can count resilience as its most dominant trait.

Chase’s older brother, Chad, dealt with recurring back issues while playing on the offensive line at Central Florida, and is now a football coach at Richmond Heights High School in Northeast Ohio.

Twin sister, Colette, meanwhile, uncannily had to undergo three surgeries in a small window on the same ankle — each with six-month rehabs — yet persevered over what was considered a career-ending injury to finish her career as a forward for the St. Francis (N.Y.) College women’s basketball team.

Sound familiar?

Every school but one, Notre Dame, recruited Chase, an All-State, two-way star at Mentor (Ohio) Lake Catholic, as an offensive tackle. That included Florida, the school to which he originally committed.

“In high school I was 240, 245 (pounds),” Hounshell said. “(Coach) Urban Meyer wanted me to enroll early, so I could get my weight up in the spring and stuff, and then he ended up retiring at the time.

“So then I ended up decommitting and coming here for defensive end, which is what I wanted to play, because I felt like my frame — when you’re a senior at 240 pounds, it’s hard for you to imagine yourself at 310.

“It’s like I don’t know if I can put on 70 pounds. That’s a lot of weight for me to put on to start playing. So I kind of wanted to play defensive end. I thought that was more my body type. I don’t know why back then I didn’t think ‘I should just be a tight end.’ ”

The identity of his ND recruiting class was defensive line talent, in quantity and quality. Highlighted by five-star prospects Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams, six other players in the 23-man class were initially projected as defensive ends and/or outside linebackers as well.

They were Troy Niklas, Ben Councell, Anthony Rabasa, Tony Springmann, Brad Carrico and Hounshell.

Saturday he’ll be the last man standing from that group of nine.

Three of them are in the NFL, Lynch first transferring to South Florida after a freshman All-America season and bombing out there. Others were ravaged by injury or just never blossomed as expected.

The 23-man class, as a whole, has as many players celebrating Senior Days elsewhere this month — Golson, Hegarty, Hardy and Josh Atkinson (Azusa Pacific) — as it does coming out of the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel on Saturday.

Linebacker Jarrett Grace, center Nick Martin and defensive back Matthias Farley join Hounshell not only in the celebration Saturday but as players who all season helped provide the toughness, the wherewithal, and, yes, the stubbornness to fuel Notre Dame’s ascent into a team that’s relevant in the playoff discussion when it’s starting to matter.

“Whether he catches a pass or not, we’ll have to see,” Kelly said of Hounshell, “but he has contributed to our success this year.”

The most serendipitous wrinkle in a season full of them for Hounshell is that he has done enough in a renaissance season of sorts in 2015 that a sixth year of eligibility, either at ND or elsewhere, is a reality he can explore. Hounshell has already applied to the NCAA, just in case.

Or, with a management consulting degree in hand, he may head to Chicago to take a consulting job he’s been offered there or perhaps to New York to work on Wall Street.

“Right now I’m not even thinking about that,” he said of his own future.

Instead he’s marveling at the future of the Notre Dame tight end group, which gets Smythe back next season and presumably more refined versions of sophomore Tyler Luatua, redshirt freshman Nic Weishar and true freshman Alizé Jones.

“I feel like we have so much talent in that room, and we all do different things,” he said. “And once we get those little things perfected, our tight end room is just going to be off the charts.

“We mesh real well together. We’re all smart kids. We know the playbook. We know how to play defenses. Once we keep perfecting our crafts, we’re going to be phenomenal.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame tight end Chase Hounshell (18) will have reason to celebrate Saturday after coming back from three shoulder surgeries to reach Senior Day against Wake Forest. (SBT Photo/ BECKY MALEWITZ)