Ranking Tight End U's Top 10 Tight Ends Since 2000
“Will anyone ever figure out how to stop the Michael Mayer crossing route?”
I saw some version of this question plastered all over social media and in my messages pretty much every Saturday throughout the 2020 season as Irish fans watched their star freshman live up to the hype. They knew their phenom tight end could likely start anywhere in the country, further solidifying the claim that Notre Dame is Tight End U.
The Irish have had several notable tight ends in their storied history, but the noise around this position group in recent years is deafening. Not unlike Alabama running backs or Ohio State defensive ends, if you want to play tight end on Sundays, Notre Dame should be near the top of your wishlist.
Since 2000, 13 Notre Dame tight ends have been drafted, and five of them are currently active on NFL rosters after Alizé Mack signed with the Detroit Lions a couple of weeks ago.
Let’s rank the top 10 tight ends to put on a gold helmet this millennium.
#10: Tommy Tremble (2018-2020)
Tremble is one of the most physical players in recent Irish history. He’s an athlete with down-field abilities and great hands. His effort sticks out to anyone watching, including Mike Tirico. Ian Book called him the "best run-blocker" he has ever seen.
The career stats don’t jump off the page - 35 receptions for 401 yards and two touchdowns. In his defense, he spent his career as TE2 behind Michael Mayer and Cole Kmet, so his production could have been higher with additional targets. Nevertheless, the stat line led many to question if his decision to leave South Bend a year early was the correct one. We will get a clearer picture of that in the coming year, but regardless, Irish fans will surely miss the zeal that Mr. “I just love contact” brought to the field.
#9 Durham Smythe (2013-2017)
Smythe had 28 receptions, 381 yards and six touchdowns as a five-year player but one-year starter for the Irish. He made a nice comeback after tearing his MCL and suffering a shoulder injury in 2015. In 2017, he averaged 16.3 yards per catch, the most in a season among tight ends in the 2000s with a minimum of 15 catches. Although the one-time Texas-commit doesn’t have crazy career stats, like Tremble, Smythe’s blocking abilities were invaluable for the Irish.
He had a great Senior Bowl and was ultimately named a captain. The Miami Dolphins saw his value and chose him in the 4th round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
#8: Alizé Mack (2015-2018)
Mack was a top high school prospect out of Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman. After seeing the field in all 13 games his freshman year, his career was rocky. He missed his sophomore year for academic reasons and did not play in the 2018 Citrus Bowl because of a violation of team rules.
The former No. 63 recruit in the nation that had 17 Power 5 offers did not live up to expectations, but he still made notable contributions to the team when he was on the field, recording 68 receptions for 716 yards and four touchdowns over the course of his career. He was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
#7: Michael Mayer (2020-2023? No shot it’s past 2022, but a girl can dream, right?)
If you aren’t already aware, stars matter. I feel confident in saying Michael Mayer will be a lot higher than #7 on this list by the time he leaves South Bend. For the moment, the now sophomore lands here after one season with 42 receptions, 420 yards and two touchdowns. His receptions and yardage broke Kyle Rudolph’s freshman tight end records of 29 receptions and 340 yards. The way he made high-level veterans miss was artful.
The five-star prospect out of Kentucky was a huge recruiting win. Both Michigan and Penn State tried to flip him after his initial commitment, but he stuck with Irish. He had 16 offers out of high school, including from Alabama, Ohio State, LSU and Georgia. 247’s NFL comparison for him is Zach Ertz.
Expect Mayer to approach or break Notre Dame tight end records in the next two years, especially as Tommy Rees tries to develop new, young wide receivers. What I would give to watch a Mayer crossing route right now.
#6 Troy Niklas (2011-2013)
The 6-foot-6 and 270 pound prospect from Southern California turned down several home-state schools, including USC, in favor of the Irish, but he wasn’t always a tight end. Niklas came to Notre Dame with the intention of playing defensive end. In his freshman year, he played outside linebacker (he even recovered a fumble against Navy in 2011) before switching over to the offensive side of the ball for his final two years in South Bend.
He was named to the 2013 John Mackey Award watch list, the award given to the nation’s best tight end. Niklas led the Irish in receiving yards twice that year, first against Oklahoma and then against USC. Four of his five touchdown catches in 2013 were 20+ yards, including this 66-yard score against Temple in the opening game. By the time he left South Bend, Niklas had 37 receptions, 573 yards and six touchdowns.
#5: Cole Kmet (2017-2019)
Although he played in 24 games during his freshman and sophomore seasons, Kmet’s production was underwhelming. He recorded only 14 catches and 162 receiving yards in those two years and never caught a touchdown pass. A two-sport athlete, the Irish baseball and football player exploded on the gridiron during his junior year, a year which oddly enough began with a broken collarbone in August 2019 that lead him to miss the first couple of games. In his final year, he had 43 receptions for 515 yards and six touchdowns. He was second on the team in each of those categories, trailing only wide receiver Chase Claypool. Those six touchdowns tied three-time All-American and former first-round pick Ken MacAfee’s single-season touchdown record among tight ends.
In total, Kmet left South Bend having tallied 60 receptions, 691 yards and the six touchdowns from his final year. After originally saying he would return to the Irish in 2020, he declared for the NFL Draft. He is from outside of Chicago and joined his hometown team when he was drafted in the second round by the Bears.
#4: John Carlson (2004-2007)
A weapon on vertical routes, Carlson was more of a wide receiver than a huge blocking threat. The high school U.S. Army All-American had 100 receptions, 1,093 yards and eight touchdowns in South Bend. He was a two-time captain — a feat that is not common among those that wear the blue and gold — and a 2006 Mackey Award finalist. Carlson had a lot of competition for touches in his first three years, sharing the field with wide receivers Jeff Samardzija, Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight. In a 2007 season that I (and I’m sure many of you) would like to forget, Carlson was a bright spot when he led the team with 40 receptions and 372 yards.
Off the field, Carlson was a major contributor in the classroom and was a finalist for the then-named Draddy Trophy, the award given to the country’s top-scholar athlete and commonly referred to as the “Academic Heisman.” The Seattle Seahawks drafted him 38th overall, making him Charlie Weis’ second second-round TE pick.
#3: Kyle Rudolph (2008-2010)
Highly touted out of Cincinnati, Rudolph was the No. 2 tight end in his class according to 247Sports, and he was the only tight end in his class to be named a high school Maxwell Award finalist. He made an immediate impact for the Irish, as he was the first tight end in Notre Dame history to start in every game during his freshman year.
At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, Rudolph was one of the nation’s biggest tight ends. Playing with Michael Floyd and Golden Tate certainly impacted his targets; Floyd and Tate still occupy the No. 1 and No. 2 spots on Notre Dame’s all-time receiving yards list. Rudolph’s total damage after three years included 90 receptions, 1,032 yards and eight touchdowns. In 2009, he was the only sophomore named a Mackey semifinalist. The Irish ultimately dropped this 2010 game to Michigan 28-24, but this 95-yard Crist to Rudolph connection is one of the more beautiful things I’ve seen.
Rudolph was drafted by the Vikings in the second round and has had one of the most successful NFL careers among Notre Dame tight ends.
#2: Anthony Fasano (2002-2005)
Like Carlson, Fasano had to share the ball with Samardzija, Stovall and McKnight and still had 74 catches in those two years. He finished at Notre Dame with a total of 92 receptions, 1,112 yards and eight touchdowns and was drafted in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft by the Dallas Cowboys.
If you find yourself holding his 2005 Bush-Push game fumble against him over 15 years later like me, try to remember he was also the recipient of the “pass right” ball to quell your anger a little. For this play, called from Notre Dame’s one-yard line in a game against Washington, quarterback Brady Quinn rolled right and dumped the ball off to Fasano. The seemingly bizarre call came from Montana Mazurkiewicz, a young Irish fan with a terminal brain tumor. Weis had asked Mazurkiewicz to call a play, and he died the night before the game. Weis honored his wish, and Quinn and Fasano delivered. Nice hurdle at the end there to cap it off.
Fasano was incredibly well-rounded while on campus in South Bend, having graduated from the Mendoza College of Business and serving time on the Notre Dame Student Athlete Advisory Board. Fasano later began an all-male addiction treatment center in Florida. He truly embodied the spirit of Notre Dame on campus and has continued to do so since his departure.
#1: Tyler Eifert (2009-2012)
Fort Wayne product Tyler Eifert is the best tight end to suit up in the blue and gold since the turn of the century. He was a three-star recruit ranked No. 583 in the nation according to 247. He was No. 8 in Indiana, a state that as Notre Dame fans are aware is not exactly a blue-chip factory. In addition to Notre Dame, he had offers from Cincinnati, Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest. The Irish didn’t pluck him from a powerhouse.
Not unlike pretty much everyone else on this list, big-bodied Eifert is 6-foot-6. In the three seasons where he saw on-field action, Eifert had 140 receptions, 1840 yards and 11 touchdowns. In 2012, he led the nation's tight ends in receptions and receiving yards and won the Mackey Award. He holds the school record among tight ends in career receptions and career receiving yards, breaking Ken MacAfee’s records from 1977.
He was selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals as the 21st overall pick. He is still the only Irish tight end this millennium to be selected in the first round.