How to transition from Notre Dame's D-line to tight end

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Chase Hounshell is the blueprint.

If Jacob Matuska had any doubt that a defensive lineman could make a successful transition to tight end at Notre Dame, he need only peruse last season’s roster.

On the first day of spring practice in 2015, Hounshell was a 6-foot-5, 275-pound Ohio native who had never played tight end on the collegiate level.

On the first day of spring practice in 2016, Matuska was a 6-foot-5, 275-pound Ohio native who had never played tight end on the collegiate level.

Sound familiar? Identical, even? Hounshell played all 13 games last season, contributing as a blocking tight end in Notre Dame’s prolific rushing attack. Now it’s Matuska’s turn. The senior was thrust into unchartered territory after Hounshell and Tyler Luatua both opted to transfer this offseason.

It can be done. It has been done. But how did Hounshell do it?

As Matuska embarks on a new position, here’s a how-to guide on shifting smoothly from defensive line to tight end.

1. Don’t get overwhelmed with the playbook. Brian Kelly’s offensive manifesto is complex, with enough fine print to fill a dictionary. It contains layers, multitudes, nuances.

Don’t try to learn the whole thing at once. Digest the Irish playbook one bite at a time.

"The first thing I told him was that I kind of got overzealous,” said Hounshell, who has been in steady communication with Matuska this spring. “They gave me the playbook the first day, and I wanted to learn the whole thing the first week. It's very unrealistic. I told him, 'Make it smaller.' You can condense it down.

“There's certain plays that I only ran when I played last year, and there's going to be certain plays that he only runs — especially this spring. I told him to break it down and work on the plays that the coaches really want you to focus on, and master those before you learn the next one."

But one play, in this case, contains more than a single route or blocking assignment. Like a watch, there are a thousand moving parts that contribute to the finished product.

Deep breaths. Know your role. One play at a time.

“The hardest part was for sure the playbook and the signals and getting in tune with the quarterback cadence and the different connections you need to have with the offensive line,” Hounshell said. “It was completely different than defense, where they kind of just give you a standard play and you go on your way.

“Our offensive schemes are pretty complex, where even if they just give you one play, that doesn't mean that they give you one thing (to do). There could be three, four different variations of a single play. So that's where our offense gets a little tricky.”

2. Get ready to run. And run. And run. And run.

In Notre Dame’s offense, oxygen can be scarce. The pace of play, and your mounting exhaustion, will not be an acceptable excuse.

“When you're watching our offense run, they don't seem like they're really running to the ball — that everything's this big time crunch,” Hounshell said. “But man, in practice, our coaches and our offensive line and whoever our quarterback is, they get the play, run to the line, and it's, 'Let's go.'

“It's fast-paced, so you don't have a lot of time to talk to the offensive tackle and see the wide receivers. There's a lot of communication that has to happen before the ball is snapped. You don't see that until you're a part of the offense."

Now, you’ll see it. You’ll feel it. Hopefully, you’ll survive it.

If pre-spring testing is any indication, Matuska will have little problem running.

“There's a big in-line guy for us that ran a whole lot better (than we expected) at 4.9 (40-yard dash),” head coach Brian Kelly said of Matuska. “Alizé (Jones) ran 4.69, so we knew he could run, but to throw a 4.9 on the board, now we've got that big in-line guy that we've been looking for.”

3. Keep your confidence. The transition will be difficult. It will test you, pummel you, punish you. Absorbing Kelly’s playbook and the technique that accompanies it can’t be learned in a practice, or a spring, or a summer.

Hounshell knows this firsthand.

“It took me a spring, a camp and a couple games into the season before I was like, 'OK, I got it,'" Hounshell said. “Really, that came with confidence. It was like, 'All right, I can do this. I know all the plays. Physically, I'm capable of having success on all those plays that they're asking me to do. The coaches believe in me.'

“Everything fell into place.”

4. Make friends with Montgomery VanGorder. Why would a makeshift tight end care to strike up a relationship with Notre Dame’s fourth string quarterback?

Because you need to memorize the calls, and he’s the one that delivers them.

“It took me a while to get everything at once — to get the cadence down, all the motions, the signals,” Hounshell said. “I worked a lot with Montgomery VanGorder, because he's our signaler. I was always with him. 'What signal is this? What signal is this?'”

So, what signal is it, Jacob? If you don’t know, you aren’t spending enough time with Montgomery.

5. Pay attention to detail. Be meticulous. Technique is everything, especially considering who you play for.

“Coach (Harry) Hiestand and coach (Scott) Booker both work together on the different techniques that we need to learn — whether it's an inside drive block or a reach block or wherever it is,” Hounshell said. “Notre Dame in general is a very technique-oriented team. When you get down to coach Hiestand and coach Booker, that increases tenfold.

“If you look at our offensive line, they are very technique-sound, and that's kind of how our team runs. The first thing you go in learning is the basic technique, and then you expand from there."

Right now, Matuska is on the ‘basic’ part. One step at a time. One play at a time.

“It’s always a process,” Booker said. “You go into the first spring and they’re doing things where they’re reverting back to their defensive line days. We have to get those habits out of them, and it takes time.

“But Jacob is willing. He’s a bigger body. We want him to consistently play physical, but we’re liking his progress so far.”

Considering that Matuska starred as a bruising tight end at Bishop Hartley High School, the physicality should come somewhat naturally. His speed is surprising, but his power can be devastating.

Years later, that’s what Bob Burchfield remembers.

“He is an excellent athlete so we were able to do a lot with him,” said Burchfield, Matuska’s head coach at Bishop Hartley. “He was such a physical and devastating blocker that he was able to cave down an entire side of the defense.”

***

Soon, if Matuska follows the blueprint, he’ll create similar havoc on Saturdays.

As for Hounshell, he’s following a blueprint all his own.

"That's why I'm deciding to transfer,” Hounshell said. “I fully believe that I can be a starting tight end and a great tight end. That's why I want to invest in myself and go somewhere where I can make that happen.

“We have Durham (Smythe) coming back, who is just an all-around great tight end. We have Alizé Jones rising in the ranks, who is a phenomenal athlete. That's not to say that there wasn't a place for me, but it's not the role that I wanted. So that's why I had to look elsewhere.

“But that was the perfect role I needed to be in last year to get my feet wet at tight end. It was such a great first step, and the same thing is going to happen with Jacob.”

mvorel@sbtinfo.com

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Notre Dame's Jacob Matuska (89) during practice on Wednesday, March 18, 2015, inside the Loftus Sports Center at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN