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Making it count

Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, November 1, 2012

Last December, the process began. Tyler Eifert filled out the NFL Draft evaluation paperwork and endlessly ran through both scenarios in his head. To return or leave, that was the grueling question.

“I was really close,” the senior tight end said. “It was kind of different every day, but at some points I was about to go.”

Despite projections as a second- or third-round pick from draft experts, Eifert found it too difficult to leave an opportunity to graduate with a degree from Notre Dame and, ultimately, the lasting bonds he built.

“I wanted to make sure I had my degree,” Eifert said. “I wasn’t very far away from that and I wanted to get that. And you only get this shot one time and I didn’t want to cut it short.

“I’ve had too much fun here being a kid with my friends and developing a good relationship with my coaches. I just wasn’t ready to grow up, I guess.”

Eifert credits his mentor, former Notre Dame and current Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, with guiding him throughout the process. Since Rudolph opted for the NFL Draft following his junior year – he was selected in the second round with the 43rd pick – Eifert said he confided in Rudolph to help him make the decision that suited him best.

“I still stay in contact with Rudy,” Eifert said. “He left early, so I went to him a lot last year for advice. And even this year, just about the process because I had never been through it.”

When he hears his name called at Radio City Music Hall this April, Eifert said he isn’t sure how he will react, only that the NFL won’t change the player he has unremittingly worked so hard to become.

“Nothing will change from the NFL-me to the college-me,” he said. “I’m just going to come to work, do my job and have fun doing it. I’m just going to do my best to put myself in the best position to get drafted as high as possible.”

But for a co-captain on a team ranked third in the Bowl Championship Series, there is ample reason to push that thought aside.

“I’m not really thinking about [the NFL] because there is a lot left to play,’ Eifert said. “We’re 8-0 so everyone is feeling pretty good, including myself.”

Three-star to All-American
Coming out of Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., Eifert was labeled as a low-level three-star recruit and received offers from Big Ten schools such as Indiana, Northwestern and Purdue.

“There wasn’t really [a chip on my shoulder],” Eifert said. “I’ve always believed in myself, but I’ve tried to stay level whether that’s good or bad and tried to be the same guy everyday.

“I’ve done my best to be a good teammate and put in a lot of hard work for the past few years. I was going to work hard and try to play if I really had [the opportunity].”

That opportunity came midway through his sophomore year, when Rudolph tore his hamstring that required season-ending surgery. In his first start, Eifert caught four passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. Since then, the 6-foot-6 tight end has started in 29 consecutive games for the Irish, motivated by a single fear only he can control.

“The thought of failing and of not doing well, I hate that,” he said. “Just to come out and work hard and put yourself in the best position to succeed makes me feel good.”

Eifert has turned into one of the premier receiving threats in the Kelly era, totaling 1,496 yards on 112 receptions and 10 touchdowns.

“Here’s what I love about Tyler Eifert: You know you’re moving your program along when your best players are your best workers,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said in August. “He’s just been incredible to work with over the past couple of years, to see his development and his maturity. He’s a leader on our football team.

“When I first got here, he was in the back row. He was two or three rows back. Now he’s up front. So you can understand from my perspective that’s exciting when your best player, one of your best players has that kind of desire to be the best.”

By the time he was a senior, Eifert had been named a Notre Dame captain, a finalist for the 2011 Mackey Award – given to the nation’s top tight end – and a second-team All-American with NFL potential. If someone would have told him this on Signing Day in 2009, Eifert said he would have come across as more than skeptical.

“I’d probably say I’ll believe it when it happens,” he said. “I was one of the lower-rated guys coming in from our class, so I would have never expected it … It’s pretty cool. I’ve waited my turn and worked hard. Coming from that to where I am today, it’s pretty awesome.”

Becoming the target
In his breakout junior season, Eifert caught 63 passes for 803 yards and five touchdowns. But with the departure of Michael Floyd, Eifert slid into the role of playmaker, making him the No. 1 target for opposing defenses.

“[Getting double-teamed] is tough,” he said. “Last year against Pitt they wouldn’t let [Floyd] open and they had two guys on him. So that allowed me to make some plays. This year [teams] are double-teaming me so it allows other guys to make some plays.”

Although he amassed a career-high 98 receiving yards against his childhood-favorite Purdue on Sept. 8, Eifert’s numbers (341 yards, three touchdowns) have dropped from where they were a year ago. But that hasn’t affected the tight end’s ability to positively affect the offense in making his mark in run-blocking and drawing attention away from Irish receivers.

“Eif is one of those guys that’s very dependable,” senior captain Manti Te’o said before facing BYU. “He’s not a mean player. He’s not a selfish player. Obviously Eif is the best tight end in college football. He hasn’t had the kind of receptions and numbers that he would like, but you never would see Tyler complaining. As long as we’re winning, he’s happy. He leads by example. He leads by his work ethic, and just really, really doing his best to ensure that our team wins.”

One thing that defenses cannot take away from the preseason All-American is his unmitigated calm and poise, put on full display as he took the field in the fourth quarter with the Irish tied at 13 with No. 8 Oklahoma.

“You can only control what you can do, so I don’t let a lot of other things affect me,” Eifert said of his composure. “As long as I stay under control and levelheaded, that’ll give me my best chance to be my best.”

Just as Rudolph and John Carlson before him, Eifert recognizes that he must fulfill his role as mentor to the newest crop of tight ends: four-star recruits in junior Alex Welch and sophomores Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas.

“I know that I’ve been in that position so I know how they are feeling and I can relate to them a lot of times and help them with a lot,” Eifert said. “I’ve never really thought about [how important I am to their success]. I just try to be a good teammate and do what I can to help. It will be cool to see them down the road.”

Niklas made the switch to tight end in the spring, after seeing the field in all 12 games last season at outside linebacker. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound converted linebacker said Eifert has been an active source of support in helping him learn the intricacies of the Kelly offense.

“He’s an All-American so he’s been there,” Niklas said. “It’s really good to have someone who you can see do it because sometimes it’s hard to know what coach is talking about. When you can see someone do it right, you know what to do. It just makes the learning process so much faster. If I ever have a question, I can just talk to him and just ask him.”

For Eifert, the starting job entails the preservation of a longstanding tradition of NFL-quality Notre Dame tight ends, earning the program the nickname: ‘Tight End U.’

“If you look down the line, we’ve had some really good tight ends in the past decade and going even further back,” Eifert said. “So it’s pretty cool to be a part of that. We recognize it for sure.”

And for Eifert, it also entails the compelling vindication for returning for his senior season.

“I love Notre Dame and I love playing football here.”

 

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu