When will Notre Dame's Tight End U reputation match reality?
SOUTH BEND — Tight End U-turn?
Notre Dame, the college football program that prides itself on its reputation for producing top-flight college tight ends and eventual elite pro prospects at the position, has been more rep and less reality since the start of the 2015 season.
Heading into 18th-ranked ND’s Saturday night clash with resurrected rival and 12th-ranked Michigan State (1-0) at Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish (1-1) have amassed 36 completions collectively in games against Texas and Nevada, with just one of those — an eight-yard completion to senior Durham Smythe vs. the Longhorns — landing in the hands of an ND tight end.
That’s coming off a season in which the Irish tight ends in 2015 collectively combined for 20 receptions — the lowest total at ND since 2001, when coach Bob Davie’s final Irish team amassed eight tight end catches.
“I’d like to spread the football around,” said Notre Dame associate head coach and offensive play-caller Mike Denbrock Monday during his weekly appearance on WSBT’s Weekday SportsBeat radio show. “I would love for our tight ends to get some more catches.
“I think it’s a couple of things. I think it’s our quarterback understanding when it’s time to give the ball to the tight ends, and we need to do a little bit better job of that.
“The other thing that I think is important is some of that comes from the tight ends. Something that I talk to them and the wide receivers and everybody about all the time is: It’s your responsibility to create your own catch opportunities.
“If you create space for yourself in the defense and you uncover yourself where the quarterback has confidence in you that you’re going to get that done, he’s going to let go of the football in your direction. And if you don’t do that, he may be a little bit hesitant and he may move off you too soon and go to somebody else.”
Going to “somebody else” — running backs and inexperienced wide receivers — is working in the bigger picture, though.
It’s hard to argue when quarterback DeShone Kizer ranks fifth nationally in passing efficiency. And he’s the first quarterback in the coach Brian Kelly Era to produce a pass-efficiency rating of more than 180 in back-to-back games.
In fact the last ND QB to do so before Kizer was Jimmy Clausen, coupling his Hawaii Bowl performance at the end of the 2008 season with one to start the 2009 season against Nevada. Brady Quinn is the last to accomplish the feat within a single season, exceeding the 180 mark in consecutive games against Navy, North Carolina and Air Force in 2006.
Alizé Jones had 13 of last year’s 20 catches, and he was declared academically ineligible for the season In August. But Denbrock sees plenty of talent in Smythe, Nic Weishar, Tyler Luatua and converted defensive lineman Jacob Matuska.
“Part of it is us developing that kind of confidence in that position,” he said. “We’ve got some kids there that can play. I think it's only going to help our offense if we expand their role a little bit. Look for that to be more of an emphasis as we move forward through the season.”
Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 7