- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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In his first five years at Notre Dame, Brian Kelly never had to look far for answers at the tight end position. From Kyle Rudolph to Tyler Eifert, from Troy Niklas to Ben Koyack — and even before Kelly's tenure, when names such as John Carlson and Anthony Fasano stepped to the forefront — there has always been a clear pecking order at the tight end spot, a precocious talent deemed next in line at a place that in some circles is known as Tight End U.
While the cupboard is far from bare at the position heading into Year 6 for Kelly, there remains a lack of proven production. Redshirt freshman Durham Smythe leads all tight ends on the roster in catches. He has one career catch, for seven yards.
But tight ends coach Scott Booker is optimistic about Smythe's prospects for the 2015 season. From CSNChicago's JJ Stankevitz:
“We’re (in early April) right now, so for me to say he’s where I want him to be come when we kick it off against Texas would be a lie,” Booker said. “But he’s really improving. He’s taking the coaching, he’s taking the techniques and he’s doing a better job, and he’s better than where he was against LSU and to now. And if he keeps on making those progressions from now until fall camp and then fall camp to our first game, I feel pretty good like he’ll be able to do the jobs.”
Koyack, who is likely the Irish's top draft prospect as he prepares for his career at the next level, played a lot last year without much of a proven blocking threat behind him. As a senior, he had 30 catches for 317 yards and two touchdowns, including a memorable game-winner against Stanford on fourth down. And though those numbers, and his draft prospects, don't exactly measure up to those of Niklas (498 yards before getting drafted in the second round) or Eifert (685 yards, first round) before him, Koyack proved to be a valuable weapon last year, serving as a jack of all trades.
Smythe finds himself this spring battling with sophomore Tyler Luatua, redshirt freshman Nic Weishar and fifth-year converted defensive lineman Chase Hounshell, with Alize Jones arriving this summer as a freshman.
One of them will have to assume the mantle come Sept. 5 against Texas, and there are plenty of opportunities between now and then for each to state his case.
Notre Dame's tight ends coach is encouraged by what he sees this spring.