TE Holden Staes sure looks part for Notre Dame football, but can he play it?

SOUTH BEND — If pads and plays and more than one practice were not part of the process, Notre Dame football sophomore Holden Staes should snag the starting tight end job sight … seen.
It took only the first few practice periods on the first day of preseason camp for observers who happened to be wandering past a tight end drill near the north end zone of the far field to get a look, then another, and maybe even a third at Staes running a red-zone route to reach the same conclusion.
Who is that guy?
That guy stands 6-foot-4 1/4 (he looks at least 6-7) and weighs 242 pounds (up from 224 when he signed in December 2021) with a physique and a presence that the Notre Dame men’s basketball team sure could use under the basket as a power forward in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Even after practice the next day as he walked slowly through the Irish Athletic Center with a piece of fruit in one hand and a half-full bottle of Gatorade in the other with his pants rolled up to resemble shorts on a brutally muggy day, Staes had the swagger of a top-tier tight end. A starter. A future somebody after a year as a relative nobody.
He certainly looks the part, but can he now play it?
Last year at this time, the Atlanta native was wandering his way through his first fall camp while rooming with future NFL draft pick Michael Mayer, arguably the best to ever play the position at a school known to crank out tight ends the way this region rolls out lake-effect snow. Staes was far from being a main guy — even a minor guy — but that was OK.
He was young. He didn’t know the position. He didn’t understand the playbook. He didn’t know where he fit in the play-calling scheme of tight ends coach turned offensive coordinator Gerad Parker. Some football players who are kings as high school seniors expect the same when they go off to college. Not Staes. Just getting on the field in uniform, getting one chance to start (at North Carolina) and getting a chance to make one catch (for 11 yards against Brigham Young in Vegas, baby) was enough. For now.
Let Mayer handle the heavy tight end lifting. Staes was cool being along for a ride that saw him play in 11 games (he logged DNPs against Ohio State and California).
“Last year, I came in and tried to learn, be the best player that I could be, get on the field and I did that, so I was proud of that,” Staes said after the second preseason practice. “This year, no Mike so there’s a void to fill. Just coming in and trying to do that for my team and my unit.”
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Two days in, everything already felt different for Staes. Last summer, even with Mayer showing him the tight end ropes, Staes thought the game more than he played it. Every call, every assignment, every bad thought ran through his head once, twice, three times at the line of scrimmage. Where does he go on this route? What about that one? Was it the right route? What if he ran the wrong way? It was pressure.
Last week, Staes would get the play call, digest it, then immediately think about how he could best make a play. Make a tough snag in traffic out of his wide catch radius. Be a big target in the red zone. Throw a big block. Be a presence. Something. Anything.
“I’m not cramming the playbook every single night,” he said. “I know my job. I kind of know what to expect.”
For Staes, it’s one practice, one day, one play at a time in the lead up to the Aug. 26 matchup against Navy in Dublin, Ireland. Staes’ preparation to be more and do more this fall actually started in the spring. Injuries shelved fellow tight ends Kevin Bauman and Eli Raridon. Mayer was off to the NFL. That left plenty of snaps to go around between Staes and Mitchell Evans, the most veteran of the returners who made three catches last season. Of the group, Staes was the only one who caught a pass (two) in the spring game.
The chance for Staes to put some separation between himself and others in the room was there. He grabbed it. Eventually.
Parker pinpointed when it all turned for Staes — over the last six practices of the spring, when the new OC demanded more from Staes in every phase. The player delivered. He blocked better. He ran crisper, tighter routes. He got the game quicker. Everything slowed down, which helped to speed up his progression from could-be guy to maybe-guy on the way to a watch-out-for-him guy.
“I was very honest with him at the front end,” Parker said. “I thought he could’ve been better in preparation in how he finished things. He got there. He’s well on his way right now.”
If Staes learned anything from his former fall camp roommate and current NFL rookie, it was this — being among the elite at this level (and maybe beyond) is about more than running routes and catching balls and scoring touchdowns. It's about grinding through rep after rep after rep in practice in the afternoon. It's about studying more film later that night. It’s about living and breathing and thinking the game when others don’t.
It’s about becoming a complete tight end, about putting in the work in the playbook, in the weight room, on the practice field, everywhere.
“I think he’s more detailed; I think he’s more confident,” Parker said. “He expects to play at a high level; we expect him to play at a high level.”
Last year was last year, but not a lost one for Staes. He needed to see the game from that perspective. He needed to watch Mayer work. He needed to listen to his advice. What words of wisdom did No. 87 pass on to No. 13?
“Y’all have to wait until the fall,” Staes said, “to see them.”
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.

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