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Tyler Eifert spreads his love of country music and football around the Irish

Andrew Owens | Thursday, September 29, 2011

When junior tight end Tyler Eifert returned to campus following Notre Dame’s physically exhausting 15-12 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday evening, the simple country boy did what he knows best — he went to a Toby Keith concert.

“[Country] is all I listen to,” Eifert said before rattling off a list of his favorite country artists. “I used to like rap, but that’s just because I liked the beat. I didn’t know what they’re saying and now that I know what they’re saying it’s kind of ridiculous. [Country fits] my personality I guess and the lyrics mean a lot. I enjoy it.”

Although Eifert is a strong proponent of country music, he has not succeeded in spreading the love to all of his teammates.

“No, I will never [listen to country music],” junior running back Cierre Wood said. “I tried, I honestly tried to listen to country music. Because I asked [my friends who listen to it,] ‘Why do you guys like country music?’

“They were basically telling me it’s about having a good day, sitting outside with your friends, stuff like that. I was like, ‘I can dig that.’ But I tried listening to it, and it’s like a ruckus to my ears. I just can’t. I just can’t. I tried it. I got some selections … but it all sounds the same to me, really.”

Saturday marks a homecoming of sorts for Eifert — the country music aficionado and native of Fort Wayne, Ind., who played high school football at Bishop Dwenger, a mere 119 miles from Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium.

Growing up a Boilermaker buff, Eifert often traveled to games and said he has fond memories of watching current New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in a Purdue uniform. Those experiences were not always positive, though.

“Notre Dame usually won and that was annoying,” Eifert said.

As a freshman in 2009, Eifert did not participate in the 24-21 Irish victory. Saturday will mark his first time playing in the stadium he knew so well as a child.

“It will be cool,” he said. “It’s a place I’m familiar with. I’ve been there a lot. I just need to approach it as any other game … I’ve been there a million times but never played there, so I look forward to it.”

Eifert was widely recruited across the Midwest in high school, but ultimately he chose Notre Dame over Purdue and left behind the memories he had collected over 17 years.

“Being recruited and deciding where you’re going to go to school, it’s a tough decision and being so familiar with the place and growing up around it, yeah, it made it a tough decision,” he said.

When Eifert looks up at the lit-up stands Saturday night, he might see some familiar faces, but he said everything is about preparing to leave town with a victory.

“When it comes down to it, it’s just a football field like anywhere else and that’s how you have to approach it,” he said.

‘Baptism by fire’

Last season, Eifert benefited from playing behind a preseason All-American tight end in Kyle Rudolph, but that security blanket was pulled away from under Eifert’s feet when Rudolph was hampered by a hamstring injury and eventually underwent season-ending surgery.

“I think he kind of got a baptism by fire a year ago with what happened to Kyle,” tight ends coach Mike Denbrock said. “He had to grow up fast. I don’t know how ready he was for it, but he continues to improve and come to practice everyday and work his tail off.

“What you see in practice you’re kind of confident in, but until you put them in a game situation and see what they do, you don’t really know what you have.”

Eifert responded by making a name for himself when he caught 27 passes for 352 yards and two touchdowns in Rudolph’s absence. The junior played an integral role in the season-ending four-game winning streak, sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees said.

“I think we feel real comfortable with each other,” Rees said. “We both started playing at the same time last year. As far as the connection and chemistry, I think it’s real strong on the field and I think our off-the-field relationship helps that.”

Big brother, little brother

Eifert’s rapid development is due in large part to Rudolph’s influence as the two have developed a close bond and continue to stay in touch even now that Rudolph is playing in the NFL.

“He texted me after the [Pittsburgh] game and we stay in contact,” Eifert said. “He’s taught me a lot of what I know about football and he really helped me adjust to playing at the college level. He’s been a huge part of my success.”

Rudolph said he tried to flood Eifert with information.

“I just tried to give him as many tips and tricks as possible, whether in his preparation throughout the week or little things I found helpful in route running or being able to be a capable blocker as a tight end,” said Rudolph, now with the Minnesota Vikings. “I feel like Tyler has done everything in his power to set up the offense.”

Denbrock said Rudolph’s advice combined with game experience has been valuable for Eifert.

“I think [learning from Rudolph] certainly couldn’t do anything but help,” Denbrock said. “I think the thing that probably pushed him forward in his preparation is getting the experience he got last year unfortunately when Kyle was injured. But having Kyle here to help kind of mentor him and help him through that transition to becoming the No. 1 guy was very beneficial to him.”

Eifert is the next piece in a long tradition of elite tight ends at Notre Dame, which includes current NFL talents Anthony Fasano, John Carlson and Rudolph in a string of dynamic Irish playmakers.

“[Notre Dame] just brings in the right kind of guys,” Rudolph said. “Guys that work hard, especially like Tyler. While I was there, he was always trying to learn and soak up as much information as he could, even though he wasn’t the starter and he went out and surprised a lot of people, but the people at practice knew he could [succeed].”

With the Irish trailing Pittsburgh 12-7 in the fourth quarter last Saturday and senior receiver Michael Floyd shut down by the defense, Eifert stepped up in the most telling moment of his development with eight catches for 75 yards. On the game-winning drive, Rees connected with his 6-foot-6, 249-pound target four times for 34 yards, a touchdown and a two-point conversion, earning him John Mackey Tight End of the Week honors.

“He provides a mismatch for us out there,” Rees said. “He does a good job of feeling throughout the zones, making himself open. He’s a big, athletic target. He can go up and get a lot of the balls.”

Rudolph was most impressed by Eifert’s growth since his freshman year.

“He’s definitely matured a lot since his first year there, especially watching the game at Pitt he just kind of took over at the end of the game,” Rudolph said. “A lot of big catches, especially on the last drive, when he got a big third down and a touchdown and the two-point conversion.”

Student-teacher

With senior Mike Ragone out for the season with an injury, Eifert is by far the most experienced tight end on the squad, with junior Jake Golic, sophomore Alex Welch and freshman Ben Koyack behind him on the depth chart. He has now seen a 180-degree shift in his approach, filling Rudolph’s shoes in terms of being a mentor for younger teammates.

“They’re great tight ends too and if there’s something they need help on or advice I can give them, I’m there to do it,” he said.

Although Eifert is now the leader of the position on the team, he said he is still learning and developing each week, particularly as a blocker.

“I’d say small things to do with blocking [are aspects to develop],” he said. “There are still some things I need to work on. Everybody knows that — just the small techniques about where to put my head and little things of the blocking aspect.”

So what would be a successful homecoming for Eifert? A productive game and a Notre Dame victory, all capped off by listening to some tunes by Toby Keith.