It's no secret that Notre Dame football faces a number of questions this offseason. Who will start at quarterback? Who will replace Michael Floyd? Will the lack of depth and experience at corner derail a rising defense? How will the defensive line perform without Aaron Lynch? While the answers to these questions are critical to Notre Dame's future success, perhaps the most intriguing question this offseason from an X's and O's standpoint is: How should Notre Dame utilize its wealth of tight ends?
With a lack of established playmakers at wide receiver, most expect the Irish to use a number of multiple-tight end sets this season. Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated has even predicted that Notre Dame's base personnel will include two tight ends. With All-American Tyler Eifert locking down one of those spots, who will be the second tight end and what role will he play?
Although we can only speculate who will be the second tight end based on the limited sound bites and videos from spring practice, there's certainly no shortage of potential candidates. By moving Troy Niklas from defensive end to tight end, Notre Dame now has three tight ends who are 6-5 or taller and five on scholarship at least 6-4. The sheer length and athleticism of this group is cause for excitement. That said, this group is, by and large, inexperienced. Outside of Eifert, no tight end has more than one career reception. But their inexperience is the byproduct of limited opportunities, not lack of talent. Remember that Eifert was once an unheralded 3* recruit whose role was limited until injuries sidelined Kyle Rudolph.
Of course Brian Kelly is not ready to anoint any of the potential candidates the next Tyler Eifert. The three likely candidates to play TE2 - Ben Koyack, Troy Niklas and Alex Welch - are all former 4* recruits, but Kelly's already indicated that he's looking for the second tight end to be a good in-line blocker first and foremost. With Eifert's versatility, dependable blocking probably is the most important attribute for the second tight end. My hope, however, is that Kelly doesn't handcuff the offense the entire season by treating the second (or even the third) tight end as a glorified tackle. If Koyack, Niklas or Welch can step up, the possibilities are intriguing.
Don't handcuff the extra tight ends
The advantages of using multiple tight ends were well documented a few years ago in an article by The Football Times. Multiple tight ends create mismatches that cannot be easily countered by changes in personnel or formation. Linebackers are generally too slow to cover tight ends, and defensive backs generally lack the physicality to cover them. As a result, the defensive coordinator is constantly facing a double bind. On one hand, if he uses his base personnel (e.g., 4-3 or 3-4), the defense is vulnerable to the pass. On the other hand, if he substitutes to a nickel package, the defense is vulnerable to the run.
Using multiple tight ends can also help the offense disguise the play call. Unless a tight end is lined up in the slot or out wide, it is nearly impossible for the defense to determine whether he will be a blocker or a receiver on any given play. A personnel grouping consisting of two tight ends, two receivers and a running back could indicate power run just as easily as it could indicate a pass with five eligible receivers. Assuming the tight ends are legitimate threats as both blockers and receivers, this personnel grouping is flexible enough to line up in or motion to any formation imaginable. In short, no matter what personnel the defense uses and how they align, the quarterback can check into the right play.
The aforementioned advantages would be limited, however, if Notre Dame's extra tight ends were relegated to blockers.
Stanford: A case study in exploiting defenses with multiple tight ends*
Last season Stanford ranked seventh nationally in scoring offense, averaging just over 43 points per game. The Cardinal's offensive outburst resulted primarily from leading the nation in red zone scoring percentage and finishing fourth in red zone touchdown percentage. For as much hype as Andrew Luck receives (and it is well deserved), he benefited greatly from Brian Shaw's frequent use of multiple tight ends, particularly in the red zone. Tight ends Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo were all 6-6 or taller and accounted for over half Luck's touchdown passes. The trio recorded 86 catches for 1,346 yards and 20 touchdowns. They also set the edge for an offense that average over 200 yards rushing per game at a 5.3 yard clip.
Unfortunately for Notre Dame fans (particularly those of us who witnessed this in person), the following video illustrates the ease in which Stanford was able to create and exploit mismatches in the red zone for Fleener, Ertz and Toilolo.
As the video illustrates (or attempts to illustrate), Stanford appeared to line up in a tight goal line formation with three tight ends, a fullback and a running back. This formation and personnel group suggested that Stanford would likely run something between the tackles. Notre Dame countered Stanford's initial formation with its base 3-4 personnel bunched.
However, shortly before the snap, Andrew Luck instructed all three tight ends to split out from the line. The shift created three favorable match ups for Stanford. Coby Fleener was matched up one-on-one with Robert Blanton, Zach Ertz was matched up one-on-one with Zeke Motta, and Levine Toilolo was matched up one-on-one with Gary Gray.
Luck quickly identified the biggest mismatch and lofted a fade to the 6-8 Toilolo for the score. Gray never had a chance because the defensive alignment left him with a nearly impossible match up.
Now try and imagine a similar alignment with Eifert, Koyack and Niklas in the red zone. ReesGoldrix would have the opportunity to throw a jump ball to tight ends with five to seven inch height advantages. Intriguing, isn't it?
Brian Kelly will not (and should not) abandon the spread offense and try to simulate Stanford's offense. He's spent the better part of two decades developing his offense, and it's proven to work in the past. That said, I think Kelly's savvy enough to tweak his offense to fit his personnel. He once claimed that his version of the spread needs six or seven legitimate receivers to run at full capacity. With all the question marks at receiver and his best offensive weapon at tight end, perhaps finding one or two more tight ends is an easier path to offensive success.
*This is my first attempt at breaking down film. I learned all my football knowledge from playing Tecmo Bowl. As far as I know, the offensive play call in the video was really just "down and b" on the Nintendo controller.