Tight end Tommy Tremble's physicality sets tone for Notre Dame's identity

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Even when he was significantly undersized relative to his position, Notre Dame tight end Tommy Tremble aspired to be an overpowering football player.

“My dad taught me that,” Tommy said about Greg Tremble, who starred as a safety for the University of Georgia in the late ‘90s. “He said, ‘Never be scared of contact. The more scared you are, the more hurt you are going to be.’”

Playing running back and defense growing up inspired Tremble to embrace contact. Tremble impressed as a defensive player so much that Michigan, Purdue and Mississippi State were among Power Five programs to offer him a scholarship as a linebacker during his recruitment.

After he chose to play offense, Tremble needed time to develop physically before that mentality translated in college. Recruiting analysts perceived Tremble as a one-dimensional receiving threat when he joined the Irish in 2018.

Their assessments proved to be correct through Tremble’s first two seasons.

To effectively develop into a complete tight end, Tremble needed to add a substantial amount of weight. He said he arrived at Notre Dame around 205-210 pounds. He did not play as a true freshman. In Tremble’s second season last year, the Irish primarily used him in passing situations.

“I couldn’t really get that chance to be that dominant blocker,” Tremble said. “But I always had that physical mindset. I never really lost that.”

Currently at 6-foot-4, 248, Tremble now flashes that hard-nosed style and will look to bring it when the No. 2 Irish (8-0, 7-0 ACC) challenge No. 19 North Carolina (6-2, 6-2) on Friday (3:30 p.m. EST on ABC) in Chapel Hill, N.C.

After transforming his body through dieting and weight training, Tremble looks like a different player this season. From running through a defender to sealing the edge with a block, Tremble is capable of handling the physical aspects of the game. In fact, he often garners more praise for his physicality than receiving ability.

“Tommy Tremble should be spotlighted for the way he blocks and the ferocity in the way he does that,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “He plays so fast. He plays so aggressive. He finishes his blocks. And I just think it’s lost in so many instances when we talk about the game of football.

“So when people see that, it really stands out and I know the aficionados of this game love watching that. I love watching it. The more Tommy Tremble — give me more. I love watching him play.”

This season, the Irish have felt more of an impact from Tremble as a blocker than receiving option. He recorded just 15 receptions for 158 yards through the first eight games. But his emergence as a versatile yet powerful blocker helped improve Notre Dame’s ground attack.

The Irish run for 233.5 yards per game, tying the Tar Heels at No. 14 in the country. With starting center Jarrett Patterson (foot) and right guard Tommy Kraemer (appendectomy) out, Tremble should be even more critical to Notre Dame’s blocking success. Sophomore Zeke Correll and senior Josh Lugg will replace them, respectively.

When the Irish run the ball, they often feature Tremble as a lead blocker or edge-sealer. They utilize his athleticism to deliver blocks in space. He can also hold his own when blocking a defender in tight quarters.

Tremble’s blocking versatility comes not only from his physical development, but also the techniques he learned this past offseason. Notre Dame hiring tight ends coach John McNulty after last season made an impact at the position, Tremble said.

“Coming into this year, working on footwork and hand placement was a really big thing that we emphasized as tight ends as a whole,” Tremble said. “I was especially thorough making sure my footwork and everything else was the best it could possibly be.”

By relying on Tremble and its stout running game, the Irish found a winning formula this season that could work again on Friday. After building early leads, Notre Dame sometimes shifts to a ball-control offense. That strategy involves the Irish dictating the game flow by sustaining long drives.

Ranking No. 7 and No. 10 nationally in third-down conversion percentage (53.6) and average time of possession (34:05), respectively, fuels Notre Dame’s success at executing that approach. And this dominating style tends to wear down the opponent.

Playing the keep-away game looks to be a wise strategy when the Irish face UNC’s vaunted offense. The Tar Heels average 43.1 points and 563.4 yards per game.

“From our perspective, we want to be who we are,” Kelly said. “We want to be physical. We want to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. That’s how we play. And they’re going to play the way they play.”

The way UNC plays tends to result in shootouts. Prior to being off last week, the Tar Heels defeated Wake Forest 59-53. The teams combined for 1,348 total yards and 60 first downs. Having a formidable offense also helps UNC stay competitive in every game. In their eight losses across two seasons under head coach Mack Brown, the Tar Heels never fell by more than seven points.

Sophomore quarterback Sam Howell comes in at No. 4 and No. 9 in passing yards (2,631) and passer-efficiency rating (182.6), respectively. Wide receiver Dyami Brown (45 catches for 829 yards and eight TDs) ranks No. 7 nationally in receiving yards. Fellow receiver Dazz Newsome (34 receptions for 455 yards and 4 TDs) also will be a threat. He hauled in 10 passes for 189 yards and two scores against the Demon Deacons.

On the ground, UNC splits between two running backs who are both poised for 1,000-yard rushing seasons: junior Javonte Williams (120 carries for 868 yards and 15 TDs) and senior Michael Carter (116 attempts for 806 yards and four TDs).

Wearing down the Tar Heels and deploying the ball-control tactic could lead to Notre Dame knocking UNC’s offense out of rhythm and limiting their opportunities.

“Going into the fourth quarter,” Tremble said, “we are always going to be the team that when we are tired, we are going even harder. We are never like, ‘Oh, let’s end this. Let’s get out of here.’ We are 100 percent until the whistle blows at the end of the fourth quarter. We attribute that to physicality. We are physical 100 percent the entire game.

“No matter what is happening, we are never shying away from that. I think that has helped not only our team, but also me individually being confident knowing that the man next to me is going to go just as hard.”

That dominating mindset never evaded Tremble. He just has the ability to translate his mentality to the field now. Tremble might not light up the stat sheet, but he embraces the dirty work that comes with his role.

“Making a great block, moving one person from point A to point B,” Tremble said, “it’s better if not the same as scoring a touchdown for me. I love doing that. Who wants to play some real football, smash-mouth football? I love that.”

Notre Dame tight end Tommy Tremble (24) makes a catch against Pittsburgh Panthers defensive back Marquis Williams (14) during the second quarter at Heinz Field on Oct. 24.