Seemingly, there may not be an easier task than to serve as the tight ends coach for the Notre Dame football program. The Fighting Irish traditionally have recruited and developed some of the best players in the country at the position to the point that it is often referred to as "Tight End University."That assembly-line type of system was never more evident than in the fall of 2011, when All-American Kyle Rudolph was injured in the sixth game of the season and the Irish coaching staff simply plugged in the next player (a guy named Tyler Eifert), who ended up being better than Rudolph.
Both players, by the way, made the 2016 NFL Pro Bowl last January.
However, the job of managing the position must not be as easy as it seems, because the tight end position in South Bend has fallen on hard times over the past 24 months and Irish assistant coach Scott Booker, who also oversaw the special teams, was reportedly fired Tuesday.For those that follow the Fighting Irish, the change wasn’t completely unexpected.
The Notre Dame tight end position caught a combined 12 passes in as many games this season, and had only 33 in the past two seasons combined. That number was a fairly good season (as in one) for a single Irish tight end not that long ago, let alone, an entire position group over two seasons.
Notre Dame has churned out tight ends with a stunning level of regularity. The Irish currently has five tight ends on NFL rosters and has had 10 drafted over the past 16 years. However, the 2016 team got just nine passes caught from redshirt junior Durham Smythe to lead this year’s group.
A large factor that negatively impacted the dearth of receptions was the absence of Alize’ Jones, who was expected to have some degree of a breakout season this year, but missed the season after being declared academically ineligible.
The next tight ends coach will have an abundance of depth to work with, as Jones and Smythe both return next fall, as does redshirt sophomore Nic Weishar.
If there was a unit more disappointing in recent years than the tight end position, then it was Booker’s special teams’ units.
The kicking game has been solid for the Irish, however, the return game – notably the number of mental errors made by the players – was too much. That was never more evident than in this year’s game against Miami (Fla.) in South Bend.
Just prior to halftime, the Hurricanes scored a touchdown and on the ensuing kick-off booted an onside kick. Freshman defensive back Jalen Elliott simply stood and watched as the Hurricanes ran over to the ball and recovered it.
"Obviously, he was confused and that's on us to do a better job of making certain that he knows what to do," Kelly said afterward. "I'm out there every day and the first thing that we say is, your feet are in concrete until the ball is kicked to be aware for the onside kick. But, obviously, we have to do a better job with Jalen in that situation.
"He knew what happened after the fact. And again, he's a very smart football player. I think he, I think he was caught off guard and probably panicked a little bit, but we’ve got to continue to work on that and make sure it doesn't happen again."
Whether he "panicked a little bit" or didn’t actually know how to play the ball, neither is a positive reflection on Booker and his teaching ability.
Later in that same game, sophomore punt returner C.J. Sanders made the critical mistake of trying to field a punt on the four-yard line and fumbled it into the end zone for a Miami score.
"His heels are supposed to be at the seven-yard line and he never, he's not supposed to retreat from the seven-yard line," Kelly explained. "C.J. knows that. C.J. was tentative and he wasn't trusting in his own ability, but he'll get through it and we’ve got to just keep working on him and he's got to… look, when you're back there, if you lose your confidence, it can be a disaster. He's got to be a confident player. When you lose your confidence back there, it obviously shows. And I thought that him being indecisive was the reason that there were two miscues there."
"Disaster" is a good word to describe the lack of production from Irish tight ends, as well as the special teams play over the past few years and for that, as well as a 4-8 season, every Irish coach is going to be evaluated this off-season. Booker’s firing is indicative of such.
"We would like to say, as coaches," Kelly said of the special teams during the season, "that, if you can get young, excited, athletic players to play for you, you should be able to get them to play at the highest level.
But we've had some lapses. We've had some things that you would scratch your head; nothing systemic in terms of schemes or players as much as these are head scratchers. So, yeah, we're taking our lumps right now, but we've got to keep coaching them, and we have to be - you know, I think even more clear.
"That's kind of how I look at it. Yeah, (the players) are inexperienced, but we knew they were going to be, and we just have to do a better job."