Notre Dame traditionalists, take solace. While the Irish lost the natural grass in Notre Dame Stadium, they might have gained a fullback.
That's because freshman tight end Tyler Luatua is shaping up to be one of college football's most versatile freshmen.
At 6'2.5" and already growing past his 260-pound roster weight, Luatua could be a Swiss army knife for the Irish offense, giving Brian Kelly a tight end who's big enough to play attached to the line of scrimmage but mobile enough to play H-back or fullback.
The 4-star recruit, per 247Sports, wasn't one of the highest-rated players the Irish signed. But as one of the early surprises in fall camp, he's caught the attention of his head coach, who is convinced Luatua will add something to the Irish offense.
"He's gonna play," Kelly said of Luatua. "We're going to feature some backfield sets that will allow him to really use his size. He's a load. He's close to 270 pounds, and when he brings it, he's a heavy load. We haven't had that kind of downhill physicality that changes the pace. We can still play fast and then play downhill."
Our last five starting TEs have been at least second round NFL picks. Hear about the next ones later today ... https://t.co/2vLHUJIJOq— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) August 7, 2014
Playing fast will make Irish fans happy, with Kelly's spread attack and diverse set of weapons allowing Notre Dame to push the tempo after only talking about it these past four seasons. But after struggling in red-zone and short-yardage situations, a weapon like Luatua will help enhance a roster that hasn't recruited a scholarship fullback since Kelly arrived on campus.
"He gives us some really good flexibility," Kelly said. "He's a fullback/H-back that gives us some versatility that we would like to have, especially blue zone [inside opponent's 10-yard line] coming in and black zone [inside Irish's 10-yard line] coming out. Short-yardage situations he can really help us."
As Notre Dame's playbook expands, we've caught glimpses of how Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock plan on using Luatua. Capable of serving as a lead blocker for a trio of Irish running backs (none weighing more than 209 pounds), an additional battering ram should help fortify the ground game.
Kelly on Tyler Luatua: "He's going to play." Will be in backfield as well.— Chris Hine (@ChristopherHine) August 9, 2014
But Luatua can also do some damage in the passing game, providing a safety valve out of the backfield as an H-back, joining a group of talented but unproven tight ends on the field with senior Ben Koyack.
A hernia injury has kept sophomore Mike Heuerman off the field, pushing Luatua into the mix with sophomore Durham Smythe while fellow freshman Nic Weishar still gets comfortable.
"He's doing a good job of acclimating himself to playing either H or Y [tight end] for us," tight ends coach Scott Booker told UND.com. "Being a diverse guy. He brings a little bit of girth to our group, he's already over 260 pounds and he's a guy that we really like in-line and attached."
It doesn't look like Luatua's done growing any time soon. His brother Isaac, who plays for Nick Saban at Alabama, is in the Crimson Tide two-deep along the offensive line and looks every bit the 315 pounds he's listed at.
Luatua chose Notre Dame over Alabama in part because of the Irish's reputation for developing tight ends.
After losing Troy Niklas, another Southern California product, to the NFL, Luatua is almost the bizarro Niklas. While the current Arizona Cardinal earned his nickname "Hercules" for his statuesque body type, Luatua doesn't fit that mold, built more like a bowling ball than a bodybuilder.
His modest height had some fans wondering how Luatua would fit in. He's found a key niche before his freshman season even starts. At a school that's been on an incredible run producing top-flight NFL tight ends, Luatua might not look the part, but he's already making his presence felt.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.