How Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long transformed Memphis' tight ends

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Daniel Montiel didn’t want to like Chip Long.

And really, who could blame him? A 6-foot-3, 240-pound tight end, Montiel had only played for one head coach in his four years at the University of Memphis — Justin Fuente. He had only played for one tight ends coach — James Shibest.

But now, in the winter leading up to his redshirt senior season, Fuente and Shibest were off to Virginia Tech, and Montiel was supposed to dust off a smile and open his arms for someone new?

No. No, sir. Wasn’t going to happen.

“I’ll be honest,” Montiel said on Monday. “Initially, when coach Fuente left, I wasn’t a part of the whole buy-in. I only had one more year. I was like, ‘Why would I get a new coach my last year?’ So initially I wasn’t all for it.”

But then head coach Mike Norvell introduced himself, brimming with a bubbly enthusiasm.

And then came Long — and darn it, Montiel cracked.

“He just brought the energy every day,” Montiel said of Long, who served as Memphis’ offensive coordinator and tight ends coach in 2016 and was announced as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator and play-caller on Monday.

“You could tell he had a passion for the game. That’s one thing we always feed off of. We want to play for somebody that wants to coach us. It was always exciting. His attitude never changed.

“He was always, 'We‘re going to go and tempo everybody. We’re going to have fun doing it, and we’re going to put up big numbers.’ It was his attitude, really, coming into practice every single day and every game. It was easy to build off of him and feed off of him.”

Naturally, Montiel fed. In his first and only season as Memphis’ starting tight end, the Arlington, Texas, native — who had accumulated 18 catches and 279 yards in the previous four seasons — caught 27 passes and finished third on the team in receiving yards (338) and touchdowns (3).

On paper, he was a former high school offensive lineman and two-star recruit who had been utilized mostly as a broad-shouldered blocker.

But Long triggered something new.

“He brought out the receiver in me,” Montiel said. “I’m not the biggest guy, so he just kind of spread me out more and gave me an opportunity to catch the ball more and make some plays that way. That’s one thing I always wanted to do.”

Montiel’s improvement was evident, but Long also left his fingerprints on the tight end corps as a whole.

“He was demanding,” Montiel said. “He knew what was best for all of us and what all of us could do. He definitely brought the best out of us and he brought more out of the young guys like (redshirt freshman) Joey (Magnifico).

“He demanded the best, and we understood that without our best our offense wouldn’t go, because a lot goes through the tight end.”

Now, imagine how that philosophy might translate in South Bend. Junior Alizé Jones will return from academic ineligibility, in 2017. Durham Smythe, who led the group with four touchdown catches last fall, is eligible to return. Same goes for Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua.

Notre Dame’s 2017 recruiting class features arguably the two best high school tight ends in the country — Brock Wright and Cole Kmet, and Wright is an early enrollee.

The 33-year-old Long — who was also an All-American tight end at Division II North Alabama in 2005 — has coached tight ends each of the last nine seasons, but Notre Dame has not announced whether that streak will continue in South Bend.

Head coach Brian Kelly did make it clear, however, that when the Irish offense takes the field in the season opener against Temple, Long will be calling the plays.

And if history is any indicator, he plans to call a lot of them.

“The tempo was way faster (in the 2016 season),” Montiel said. “We did tempo with Fuente, but it was never as fast as we did this year. As complex as it seemed with the tempo, we were really basic offensively. We did simple things to spread you out and make you think we were doing difficult stuff. But we really didn’t. With Fuente, there were a lot more schemes.

“But it was mainly the tempo. We were definitely faster, and you could see it wore down defenses, especially when we started to click more later in the season.”

In Long’s first season as an offensive play-caller, Memphis averaged 38.8 points per game (15th nationally) and 6.7 yards per play against ranked opponents (7th). The Tigers scored at least 30 points in each of their last six games and never fell below 24 points in a game during an 8-5 season.

Somewhere along the way, Montiel changed his mind.

“He was perfect for me in building me and using me how I’m supposed to be used,” said Montiel, who’s currently training for an opportunity in the NFL. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s a great coach. They got a good one for sure.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Memphis tight end Daniel Montiel, left, scrambles for a touchdown against Bowling Green during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, in Memphis, Tenn. (Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal via AP)