Using multiple tight ends might be a Notre Dame edge vs Alabama football | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

For Alabama football fans of a certain vintage, the mere mention of a Notre Dame tight end brings back bad memories.

The decisive play of the 1973 Sugar Bowl, the first meeting between the two towering programs in college football, came down to a single play that would give Alabama a last chance or finish its chances. Notre Dame led by a single point, 24-23, but was pinned on its own 3 facing a third-down-and-8.

To understand how college football has changed, Notre Dame didn’t go to an empty backfield, the default formation on third-and-long today. The thinking was that Fighting Irish coach Ara Parseghian would run and hope to gain enough yardage to keep his punter from standing on the back line of the end zone.

Dec 5, 2020; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish tight end Michael Mayer (87) is tackled by Syracuse Orange safety Aman Greenwood (26) in the first quarter at Notre Dame Stadium.

Instead, Tom Clements dropped back to pass, not to star tight end Dave Casper, who was well-covered, but to the backup, Robin Weber, who was not covered at all. The result was a 35-yard gain, a first down that allowed Notre Dame to run out the clock, and flowing tears in Alabama.

The Notre Dame tight end tradition has continued unabated. Even in the 2012 BCS Championship Game, when the Irish had few viable offensive options, tight end Tyler Eifert was the best of the lot. This year, replacing Cole Kmet, the first tight end chosen in the 2020 NFL Draft, has been a matter of strength in numbers. Two tight ends on the field? Frequently. Three? No problem. Four? Ask North Carolina what that looked like, because the Tar Heels saw four (junior Tommy Tremble, freshman Michael Mayer, senior Brock Wright and junior George Takacs) as one element of Notre Dame playing keep-away from the UNC offense.

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Stopping Alabama by keeping its offense on the sideline is sound strategy, if somewhat oversimplified. Also, the Irish tight ends aren’t just blockers, as Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Pete Golding explained on Monday.

"What I've been most impressed with these guys is how well they block in the C area,” Golding said. “They move them around, a lot of sliders with them. Obviously they're a gap team as well. They do a good job in the kick-out. And they're still effective in the pass game. I'm not saying they're the same as what we saw in (Florida tight end Kyle) Pitts. He’s a little different athlete. Obviously he has receiver speed. But they do a really nice job formationally of moving these guys around, creating extra gaps in the run game and then complement it with the pass game.”

Pitts is the premier tight end in the nation, but most teams are finding diverse ways to utilize the position. 

"It used to be, back in the day, that the tight end was always in the C area,” Golding said. "There were certain plays and patterns they ran out with them. But I think everybody is doing a really nice job of aligning these guys all over the place. ... They create some matchup problems. That's what these guys do. ...

"I think the multiplicity that people are doing with the tight ends ... dictate what you're going to play. And so whether you're playing man or zone, they're going to know based on who is lined up on these guys. That's why they do it. ... And then at that point, if their guy ends up going up and being better than yours and making the play, it's predetermined for the quarterback what they're in, because there's only so many things you can do once you put those guys at certain spots.”

Golding said the key is keeping Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book off-balance as much as possible.

“Obviously we'll have our work cut out for us,” Golding said. “We’ve got to change the picture for the quarterback.”

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt