NOTRE DAME, Ind. – If you had trouble recognizing Ben Koyack before he grew his facial hair then seeing him in full ‘Grizzly Adams’ mode would certainly be enough for you to walk right past him. Such was the case when I saw the junior tight end after practice the other day and when I finally figured out it was him, I had to inquire about the new look.
“It’s just a camp beard,” Koyack said laughing. “I mean, it’s camp and there’s no girlfriend here, so I decided to grow it out. It’s probably gone tonight though, unfortunately.”
Maybe the beard sends a messages that 6-foot-5, 261-pounder is not a young man anymore, at least in terms of where his comfort level is in the Notre Dame offense.
“It’s been a great camp,” Koyack explained. “It’s been a lot easier now that I’m going into the third year - you kind of know what to expect and can adjust.”
“Camp itself has not been as difficult in terms of install,” he continued. “It’s just more or less getting things right, and collectively as a group we’ve been doing a great job with that.”
The Oil City, Penn. product also sees a shift in his game from robotic to more of an instinctual mode that allows him to hone his skills rather than only focusing on the big picture.
“For me now it’s more about doing and a lot less about thinking,” Koyack stated. “I understand a lot more of the offense now, so I can improve on other things now when before I couldn’t.”
When pressed to expand on which skills he’s looking to perfect, it’s clear the entire package is on notice.
“There hasn’t been one specific area that I’ve tried to improve upon,” Koyack said. “I have a lot to improve on, so I’ve spent a lot of time catching balls, pass blocking, and run blocking. Coach Booker tries to spread everything out during practice, so we can focus on getting better at everything.”
Everything for a Notre Dame tight end means everything, as the expectation is to be able to perform multiple tasks from multiple places. The former Oil City High School standout understands this and regardless of whether he likes one role over another, he’ll settle for doing what he’s told.
“I can’t really say I have any preference of where I play,” Koyack explained. “Whatever the coaches want to put me they can – they’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have. Whatever they think is best for the team, that’s where I’ll go.”
One of the more difficult tasks for any tight end, and something Koyack struggled with himself in 2012, is blocking smaller, faster defenders from the slot receiver perch. This has been a point of emphasis for all the tight ends this year and requires a different approach than banging heads with a defensive end.
“Obviously in space, sometimes you have some quicker guys,” Koyack stated. “As an inline blocker the guys are bigger and not as quick, but at the end of the day you still have a guy you need to block. It’s a different technique to block in space, but you still have to get your guy blocked. We’ve been working on that a lot.”
The core group of Koyack, Troy Niklas, and Alex Welch is set, but there are also two freshmen tight ends in Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe who are impressing many of the veterans.
“They’re learning and they’re both going to be very good tight ends,” Koyack said about Heuerman and Smythe. “We’re doing what we can to help them out and they’re both pretty far along, especially for freshmen. I feel they’re further along than I was when I was a freshman. They’re fast learners.”
“I’m rooming with Durham during camp and his nose is always in the playbook,” he continued. “I know Mike is the same way. They’re both really coming along.”
Together, the five tight ends on the Irish roster have built a strong bond that allows for the occasional hijinks in the midst of the necessary evil they call fall camp.
“We’re a very tightknit group,” Koyack explained. “We’re always messing around with each other - even at the end of practice today Troy (Niklas) and I were sandwiching Coach Booker after he talked to us. We like to have fun, but at the end of the day we know we have to work. It’s a good environment in our room.”