NOTRE DAME, Ind. - The tight end has become of staple of the Notre Dame offense over the last several years. So much in fact that Notre Dame might as well be known as 'Tight End U' in the college football world.
Former Irish tight ends Anthony Fasano, John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph have all prospered under the golden dome and have taken their trade to the NFL, but the tight end that followed that trio took the position to another level. Tyler Eifert and his 134 career receptions and 1,779 receiving yards set the bar high for all future Irish tight ends.
"There's always pressure," Irish junior tight end Ben Koyack said recently of attempting to fill the void left by Eifert. "There's not really pressure on one of us over the other, but it's kind of just pressure as a unit to perform as well as a great tight end like Tyler. I think we're all handling it pretty well and we're all trying to help each other and become better as a unit."
Eifert had a team-high 50 receptions for 685 yards in 2012, while Koyack (3 for 39 yards) and fellow tight end Troy Niklas combined for just eight catches and 114 yards. Those two are joined by Alex Welch, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, and early enrollee Mike Heuerman as the current members of the tight end group who will attempt to replace Eifert's production in 2013.
Brian Kelly's theme for players has always been 'next man in' when it comes to replacing an injured or graduated player. Notre Dame tight end coach Scott Booker says that is exactly how he views finding Eifert's replacement.
"We can't worry about who we lost or anything like that," Booker said recently. "Next man in means we've gotta go, so we're just excited about the opportunity we have. All those guys understand that there were a lot of reps that Tyler was able to take that now are up for grabs, so whoever takes it takes it."
The benefit players like Koyack, Welch and Niklas have is getting to work closely with Eifert on the practice field on a daily basis over the last few years.
"It's so effortless for him," Koyack said of Eifert's skill. "That's something you try to emulate when you're at practice. You just see his work ethic. Even if he may not be having the best practice he's ever had he's still out there going a hundred percent and still making great catches (and) great plays. He the perfect example of somebody you can learn from by just watching him practice."
His presence made others raise their bar and the biggest thing he learned from working next to Eifert was setting a high daily standard at practice.
"You've just gotta go to practice and work hard," Koyack said. "You're there for a reason - you're there for a purpose. We're here to get better every day. All you can really do is just put in as much work as you can."
Koyack came to Notre Dame rated as high as the number one tight end in the country in the 2011 recruiting class. He had 62 receptions for 1,031 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior at Oil City (PA) High School. He totaled a whopping 152 career receptions and 2,591 yards before heading to Notre Dame, but has just four catches for 44 yards through his first two collegiate campaigns.
Eifert's presence in the offense has meant fewer opportunities for Koyack and the rest of the Fighting Irish tight ends over the last three seasons. With the 2012 Mackey Award winner splitting out in pass formations, Koyack has done more of the grunt work as a blocker and that is where he is still working on establishing himself.
"It's always tough to transition, especially when it's something you're not used to," Koyack said of honing his blocking skills. "But when the coach tells you to go somewhere and play somewhere everyone here is going to do everything they call to do that role and fill the role they want."
He did his share of blocking in high school, but Koyack didn't do much pass blocking, because he was running pass routes instead. While his previous role alongside Eifert has had him in-line more and not split out as much, he hopes to become more diversified now.
"So far this spring we have been trying out different people in different places," he said. "Moving different guys split out more than others. I think, especially coming up with some people leaving and Tyler being gone, that opens up (the chance for) other guys to try out in some other roles."
Koyack now has two years under his belt and the tight end position is getting more and more crowded. Niklas continues to make his own strides, while the return of Welch, who was at number two on the depth chart before his injury during fall camp last year, means now is the time for Koyack to step up and show himself.
"I think Ben has more sense of urgency now that he sees that he's a junior," Booker said of Koyack. "Two years are already done for him. I like his sense of urgency so far. He's been challenging in a lot of ways and he's been responding so far. We're excited to continue to see his progress."
Even Eifert took a while before his career really took off. He played in just one game as a freshman in 2009 and then had a solid 27 catches for 352 yards as a sophomore before finishing his career with a flourish and 111 receptions for 1,427 yards and nine touchdowns over his final two seasons. Koyack may not be ready to make that kind of leap in 2013, but he does think he is making progress.
"I kind of had to go out there and get comfortable with it again," Koyack said of how he has tried to prove himself. "In high school you always get to the point where you don't have to think - you know everything inside and out. We're starting to get to that point now where I understand our offense a lot better and I've been able to do a little bit more than I used to do or check something or if something gets checked (I can) adjust on the fly."
There is no doubt the departure of Eifert opens the door for the rest of the tight end corps and they are all pushing each other to get better.
"Whether or not that's one of us on the field or two or three of us it give all of us great opportunities," Koyack said. "We all kind of just jump at the chance to help each other out and do what we can to get all of us or as many of us on the field as we can at one time."
The numbers the Irish have at tight end could give them a chance to specialize, but Booker wants his tight ends to be as versatile and well rounded as possible. While Koyack has seen his own growth over the last two years, he knows he still has work to do before he becomes a complete package.
"I don't think the work's ever done," Koyack said with a smile. "Like I said with Tyler - he's a pretty well rounded guy. He was great at every aspect and he still came and worked every day as hard as he could. I feel regardless of how well rounded I feel like I can always improve. There's always stuff to work on, whether it's breaking out of a route or getting out and blocking faster on a different technique. I feel like I'm definitely improving, but there's always going to be work to do."