Analysis: Notre Dame has tight end depth to absorb Alizé Jones' absence
SOUTH BEND — If Alizé Jones puts as much precision and panache into his academic comeback as he did explaining the reason Wednesday why one now is necessary, the Notre Dame tight end may only be deferring a breakout season.
And not derailing it.
"Notre Dame is a special place and playing for the Irish is a privilege," Jones tweeted on his Twitter account, actually breaking the news himself, three days before the Irish open fall training camp. "With this opportunity comes academic responsibility, and unfortunately, I didn't meet that responsibility.
“I love Notre Dame and everything about it. Obviously, I'm disappointed at myself, but I'm going to make the best of this situation.
"I'm going to remain a student at Notre Dame and work even harder. I'm going to grow from this. I'm going to be a better teammate, student, player and man. While I won't be able to help my brothers on Saturdays, I'll do whatever I can to help this team achieve its goal of winning a national championship."
As for the potential ripple effect on the Notre Dame offense while the sophomore from Las Vegas incubates as a practice-only player while getting his academics in order this season, the Irish will likely feel the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder’s absence at potentially two positions.
At tight end, and also at what ND refers to its “W” receiver, the position manned by Chris Brown and Corey Robinson last season. Jones dabbled at both places this past spring, with head coach Brian Kelly using those experiences to try to figure out how best to use Jones’ enticing speed/size combination moving forward.
There’s no one on the roster quite like Jones, ND’s leading receiver at tight end last season (13 receptions, 190 yards), and his production in 2016 was expected to more closely resemble his purported potential.
But there are numbers and options at both tight end and the W receiver that can mitigate the loss.
Senior Durham Smythe, who missed all but the very start and very end of ND’s 2015 season because of injury, is the team’s most complete tight end, and that was the case when Jones was on the roster.
Junior Nic Weishar might be the best receiver of the remaining tight end group, and his role could expand because of Jones’ hiatus. Tyler Luatua, set to transfer to BYU in the winter, had a change of heart and provides elite blocking skills, but he has yet to catch a pass in two seasons at ND.
A spring experiment gone right has positioned converted senior defensive lineman Jacob Matuska to be more than a safety net at the position, flashing the form he showed at Columbus (Ohio) Bishop Hartley that prompted most schools recruiting him four years ago to project him as an offensive player.
There’s also quantity at the W receiver — really all three of ND’s wide receiver positions — and talent to boot, but very little experience.
With Robinson retiring from football in June due to multiple concussions, with a year of eligibility remaining, linebacker James Onwualu now claims the most wide receiver starts on the Irish roster (4) and the second-most career catches (2) at wideout, a position he hasn’t played since 2013.
But the rumblings from ND’s summer workouts suggest it’s matter of when — and not if — the next wave of receivers puts up big numbers.
The tight end position, diluted by Smythe’s injury and roster turnover, produced just 20 catches in 2015. That’s 46 short of the peak number produced during the Kelly Era (2011) and the fewest since John Owens and Gary Godsey cobbled together a mere eight between them in Bob Davie’s final year as ND’s head coach.
The only time a tight end found the end zone last season came on a fake field goal.
As for Jones, he’ll likely have the opportunity to recoup the lost year, just as ND academic casualties have in the past, leaving him with three seasons to play, beginning in 2017.
If his ceiling is as high as many think and his drive to get himself on solid academic ground is as earnest as his Wednesday statement, Jones may not use all of his college eligibility anyway. Prior to last season’s mixing and matching at tight end, Ben Koyack is the only one of the past four Irish starters at the position not to leave for the NFL as an early entry.
But Jones’ head is apparently where it needs to be at this juncture, putting first things first and taking accountability not only for his comeback but for his fall.