NOTRE DAME, Ind. - This spring has been like starting all over again for Notre Dame tight end Alex Welch. The senior to be appeared to be on an upward arc during fall camp last year, but his season was cut short well before it ever really even began. Welch tore his right ACL in early August during a live scrimmage in the LaBar Complex.
Welch missed the entire 2012 season after having surgery on the knee. Welch continues to wear a brace on the knee and will wear it throughout the spring. His goal is to have it off by the time fall camp begins in August, but that is wait and see for now.
"It feels good," Welch said recently of his reconstructed knee. "It feels much better than I thought it would be at this point, so that's important. I'm just getting more confident on it."
Welch was looking as good as he ever had at the time of his injury since coming to Notre Dame. He sat out all of his freshman season in 2010 and then caught one pass for eight yards in 10 games as a reserve in 2011, but he was Tyler Eifert's top back-up when he was hit by the untimely injury last fall.
"You always think about that," Welch said of being so close to seeing his time come last season. "But it's football. What can you do once you get hurt? You just have to worry about getting back. You can't think about the injury and what could have been. You've just gotta appreciate what you've got ahead of you."
What is ahead of Welch now is the chance to make progress this spring as he continues on the road to full recovery. His legs are not nearly as strong as they were before the injury, but he says he first really felt like he could get back to his old form while lifting more weights during this past winter's workouts.
"Up until then I would always think am I gonna be back, am I gonna be ready for spring," he said. "Once you have your ACL done - it's different than any other surgery. It took time, but once I went through the winter workouts with everybody else and I was right there with them - that's when I realized I could get back."
Being back with his teammates is where Welch wanted to be all along. He still was with his team in meetings after the injury last season, but he was relegated to mere spectator during Notre Dames 12-0 season and BCS Championship Game experience.
"That's tough," Welch said of the bittersweet joy of watching his team succeed without him. "I had other guys with me that were hurt and that helps. You just hang with each other. You're still with the team obviously. You're in meetings, but at the same time you feel a little separated, but it's part of the game and injuries happen."
Welch has been back in action for every practice this spring. There has been some rust, but he is starting to pick things up on the field once again.
"I'm starting to get back in that groove," Welch said after missing a season of football. "I think this spring is really important for me just to get back into football shape and remember how you play the game. Come fall camp I'll be ready."
"I feel like I was playing at a pretty high level last fall and then after what happened you kind of forget things."
Welch was rated as high as the number 10 tight end prospect in the nation coming out of Cincinnati's Elder High School - the same high school as former Notre Dame and current Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph.
"We're excited to see that his leg is taking the pounding of pads and all that type of stuff," Irish tight ends coach Scott Booker said of Welch's return to the field. "He's getting more confidence in his leg every day, so we're excited about that."
"He's just gotta get back to where he was in August and it's not gonna be the first or second practice where he gets back all of his technique," Booker continued. "He's working hard, and we're just excited about his progress so far."
Welch is joined by veterans Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas and freshman early enrollee Mike Heuerman in a group of tight ends who have the somewhat daunting task of trying to replace Tyler Eifert. The 2012 Mackey Award winner is projected as a potential first round pick in this month's NFL Draft. Eifert is the latest in a line of players that include Rudolph, John Carlson and Anthony Fasano to springboard from Notre Dame into the professional ranks.
"I wouldn't say it's a pressure," Welch said of following that lineage. "It's more of a prestige. You feel good about yourself to be a part of that being a tight end at the University of Notre Dame. At the same time, we're not trying to be any of those tight ends. We're gonna be ourselves."
"We lost Tyler Eifert. He's a great tight end. He's gonna play in the NFL. I don't look to try to replace him. We're just trying to be ourselves and go out there and help the team."
Eifert was Notre Dame's top pass-catching target in 2012 with 50 receptions for 685 yards and four touchdowns. A host of questions for both Irish tight ends and coaches this spring have been about how the current group of tight ends will attempt to replicate Eifert's production in 2013.
"I don't really look at it like that," Welch said when the question was thrown his way. "I look at it as we're gonna have to go in there and block and we're gonna have to catch the ball when they ask you to. We're tight ends - that's what you do. Are we going to get flanked out wide and run wide receiver routes like Tyler? I don't know (but) we'll do whatever they ask."
Booker says going from one tight end like Eifert to the current group of potential candidates for the job next season is merely about the progression of the offense - IE - 'the next man in'.
"(We) don't really look at how many yards Tyler had and say we have to replace it with this guy, this guy that guy," Booker said. "We're just looking to progress the offense in every aspect, and at tight end specifically we're looking to progress the offense by being able to block in-line, but also being able to be a receiving threat down the field. However we can do that we're able to do that."
If there is a silver lining for Welch, it is that he still has three years of college eligibility remaining. It would have been a luxury to play beside Eifert for one more year, but he now has his own chance to flourish. Welch has a final week of spring practice to shake off the playing rust and then build his body back up over the summer so that he can be back to his old form when fall camp opens in August.
"That's definitely not so much of a hope - that's what we're going to progress to," Booker said of the plans for Welch. "We saw what he was capable of doing, so we feel like he's going to get back to that, but it is a process."