Counting down the top 10 Notre Dame tight ends at Tight End U.

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly didn’t initially seem like he’d turn out to be a natural custodian of the tradition of Tight End U. at Notre Dame.

Or even an invested one, when the now-11th-year Notre Dame head football coach succeeded ousted coach Charlie Weis in December of 2009.

Tight end wasn’t entirely an afterthought in Brian Kelly’s offenses at Cincinnati. Ben Guidulgli, for instance, hauled in a respectable 27 passes for 364 yards and three TDs during the Bearcats’ 2009 run to a 12-0 regular-season record.

But Guidulgli wasn’t anywhere near a prototypical tight end, measuring 6-foot, 201 pounds when he signed with the Bearcats, and 6-1, 230 in the final season he and Kelly spent together before the coach bolted for Notre Dame.

Kelly during his three-year stay at Cincinnati did recruit a 6-5 quarterback from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, who turned into one of the NFL’s biggest stars at the tight end position, eventually — Travis Kelce.

Kelly didn’t get to benefit much from that association, however. Kelce redshirted as a quarterback in 2008, then caught one pass for three yards as a hybrid tight end/wildcat QB in Kelly’s final season at UC.

But when Kelly got to Notre Dame, he inherited two future NFL tight ends, in Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert, as well as Mike Ragone and Jake Golic to go along with his own recruit, Alex Welch.

And he knew just what to do with them.

The 58 catches combined by that unit in Kelly's first season were 17 more than Weis’ final team produced in 2009, and 50 more than Bob Davie’s final season as ND head coach (2001). The Irish have matched or exceeded that 58-catch total four times since, including last season (63).

In concocting a list of the top 10 tight ends of Tight End U., you would think that kind of production would have made it Kelly Era-heavy. It’s not, in part because Kelly became a victim of sorts of his own success.

Five Kelly Era starters at tight end have left Notre Dame with a year of eligibility on the table to go to the NFL. Three, including Cole Kmet this winter, were true three-and-outs.

So some players who may have been on a trajectory to be among the all-time greats turned into what-ifs or were lower on the list than they’d otherwise have been.

The methodology used in creating the Top 10 tight ends at Tight End U., is a blend of art and science. All-America status, NFL Draft status, team success, and a player’s standing stat-wise in ND history all were major factors. To some degree the context and era in which they played factored in.

Some tight ends simply were minimized in their respective offenses, because that’s where offenses had evolved at the time. Longevity mattered in the formula, to a degree. What was absolutely NOT factored in was how the player eventually performed in the NFL.

Mark Bavaro, for instance, played his best football after Notre Dame and would have ranked higher in the top 10 had NFL careers been included in the calculations.

Only players in the era of two-platoon football were considered (1964-present), in an attempt to create a more level basis for comparison.

Without further patter, here’s the countdown:

No. 10 Irv Smith (1989-92)

Smith’s biggest impediment to statistical prowess was that an eventual All-American and future first-round draft choice, Derek Brown, arrived at ND a year before he did.

It actually almost deterred Smith from signing with the Irish, and three years into his ND career he had amassed just eight catches. One of them, though, was a career-defining 58-yard reception and run against Indiana, in which he shed and dragged a group of Hoosier defenders the final 25 yards into the end zone.

Former Notre Dame Irish tight end (82) Irv Smith looks on from the sideline during the 1992 season opener against Northwestern at Soldier Field in Chicago. 

It was Smith’s first TD since high school.

With Brown gone, Smith in 1992 caught 20 passes for 262 yards and 2 TDs and made an All-America team. The following spring he was a first-round draft choice, one of five on this list, going 20th overall in the 1993 NFL Draft to the New Orleans Saints.

No. 9 Mark Bavaro (1981-84)

Bavaro’s prolific NFL career skewed his perception in one direction, while playing his entire college career for often-overmatched head coach Gerry Faust distorted it in another. So did missing all but a handful of plays his sophomore season after cutting his hand on a pane of glass.

Cole Kmet this past season finally bumped Bavaro out of the ND career top 10 for receptions by a tight end. Thirty-two of Bavaro’s 55 came during his senior season, when he led all Irish passing targets with 32.

Former Notre Dame tight end Mark Bavaro went on to win two Super Bowls with the New York Giants, scoring a touchdown in Super Bowl XXI.

Bavaro made one All-America team — the AP first team — and was drafted in the fourth round in the spring of 1985 by the New York Giants, with whom he became an instant and lasting star.

No. 8 Anthony Fasano (2002-05)

Fasano redshirted as a freshman under Tyrone Wllingham, then went on to become Notre Dame’s No. 4 tight end all-time in career receptions (92) and No. 3 in receiving yards (1,102).

Notre Dame’s Anthony Fasano gives Purdue’s Cliff Avril the stiff arm in West Lafayette, Ind., on Oct. 3, 2005.

He played his final season under Charlie Weis, then declined an option to return to ND for a fifth season and instead entered the NFL Draft. He was a second-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in the spring of 2006.

No. 7 Kyle Rudolph (2008-10) 

Rudolph was far and away the most productive freshman tight end over at least the past 30 years. His 29 catches (for 340 yards with two touchdowns) matched the combined freshman-year production of the 13 tight ends who were drafted between ND’s 1988 national championship season and Durham Smythe going in the fourth round 30 years later.

Given that Rudolph opted to play in the NFL in 2011 rather than return for a senior season and that he played in only six games as a junior in 2010 because of a leg injury, his standing on the ND all-time career charts is nothing short of remarkable.

Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph scores a touchdown against Michigan at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 11, 2010.

His 90 career catches and 1,032 career receiving yards both rank fifth all-time. His 2010 injury opened the door for Tyler Eifert to ascend, and Eifert went on to be ND’s all-time leader in tight end receptions and receiving yards, both career and single season.

Rudolph has flourished in the NFL after being selected in the second round of the 2011 draft by Minnesota.

No. 6 Derek Brown (1988-91)

Brown scored touchdowns on his first two collegiate receptions as a freshman on the 1988 national championship team, broke into the starting lineup at midseason of that year and went on to start the next 36 games straight after that.

Former Notre Dame Irish tight end Derek Brown (86) tries to elude the West Virginia defense in a 34-21 Fiesta Bowl win on Jan. 2, 1989, that capped a national championship season.

Only once did Brown have more than 15 catches in a season and he topped out his senior season at 22. But Brown’s numbers (62 catches for 899 yards and 8 TDs for his career) were suppressed by the era in which he played.

As a senior, he made three All-America teams, and the following spring Brown was the 14th overall pick — by the New York Giants — in the 1992 NFL Draft.

No. 5 Tony Hunter (1979-82)

Hunter was the most difficult tight end to place among the top 10, in part because he played wide receiver his first two seasons at ND, where he had 50 of his 120 career catches.

As strictly a tight end, Hunter — roughly the same size when he was drafted (6-4, 237) as 2019 team MVP Chase Claypool, a wide receiver, was at the 2020 NFL Combine — Hunter checks in at No. 6 in career tight end receptions (70) and No. 7 in career receiving yards by a tight end (904).

Notre Dame's Tony Hunter (85) in action against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium during the 1981 season.

He made an All-America team as a senior, then was selected No. 12 overall by the Buffalo Bills in the 1983 NFL Draft. The only ND tight end in the era of two-platoon football who has been drafted higher was Ken MacAfee (No. 7) in 1978.

No. 4 John Carlson (2003-2007)

The former Minnesota all-state tennis player and basketball star (114-8 and three state titles) was a football rarity at ND in his era, as a draftable Irish tight end who stayed in school for five years.

Longevity paid off handsomely for Carlson, who made six All-America teams in 2006, his next-to-last season, and became a second-round draft choice of the Seattle Seahawks in the spring of 2008.

John Carlson (left) was a rarity among recent Notre Dame standout tight ends in that he stuck around at ND for five seasons. 

After amassing just 13 catches during his first three years on campus, Carlson went on to collect 100 during his career, putting him No. 3 on the career receptions list for tight ends and No. 4 (1,032) in receiving yards.

A cool postscript is how he mentored Rudolph and Eifert from a distance during their ND careers, including strongly and successfully encouraging Eifert to return to ND in 2012 for his senior season, which turned out to be one that ended in the BCS National Championship Game.

No. 3 Dave Casper (1970-73) 

Casper only played one season as a tight end at Notre Dame, and he won a national championship and earned consensus All-America honors that season (1973).

Arguably the best athlete on this list and unarguably the most successful NFL player on it, Casper’s freshman year predated the return of freshman eligibility to college football by two years.

Former Notre Dame tight end Dave Casper went on to have a Hall of Fame career in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders.

Out of need he played offensive tackle the next two years, as a sophomore and junior, and was honorable mention All-America at tackle the year before he moved to tight end. The College Football Hall of Famer and Pro Football Hall of Famer even filled in one game in 1972 as a starting wide receiver when Willie Townsend was injured.

He may have been the best blocker at any position for Notre Dame of his era, and iconic coach Ara Parseghian called Casper the best athlete he ever coached. All that offset the modest and deceptive career numbers — 21 pass receptions for 335 yards and four touchdowns.

Among pro teams, only the Oakland Raiders, the team that took him in the second round of the 1974 draft, projected him as an NFL tight end.

No. 2 Tyler Eifert (2009-12)

The statistical king in career numbers at ND (140 catches for 1,840 yards), Eifert accumulated them in 2½ seasons as a starter and three years total.

As a redshirting freshman in 2009, Eifert considered a spinal surgical procedure that would have ended his football career. Instead he got a second opinion and kept playing.

Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert picks up extra yards against Wake Forest at Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 1, 2012.

The two-time All-American was projected as a NFL Draft third-rounder had he came out after a 2011 season in which he registered a school-record 63 catches. Instead he stuck around for the 2012 national title game run, and in 2013 became ND’s first first-rounder at the position (21st overall to Cincinnati) since Irv Smith 20 years earlier.

No. 1 Ken MacAfee (1974-77) 

The three-time All-American simply fits in any era, and so do his cascade of accolades.

At the end of ND’s 1977 national title run, MacAfee finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting, with teammate and defensive end Ross Browner ending up fifth — on a team with Joe Montana as its quarterback.

Former Notre Dame tight end Ken MacAfee was so dominant in 1977 that he finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting.

No tight end has even finished in the top 10 of the Heisman balloting since. The now 64-year-old dentist/oral surgeon in ‘77 became the first lineman to win the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award. In 1997, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

MacAfee shares the Notre Dame record for catches in a single game (9) with Kmet. With 128 career receptions for 1,759 yards (with 15 TDs), he’s No. 2 to Eifert in both those career categories and No. 2 in the corresponding single-game marks (54 catches, 797 yards) as well.

In the spring of 1978, San Francisco selected him in the first round of the NFL Draft with the seventh pick overall.

Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert (80) left ND as its career and single-season leader in receptions for a tight end.