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Football: Out of the shadow

Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, April 11, 2013

Last season, Tyler Eifert racked up 624 yards, 44 receptions, four touchdowns, broke two receiving records and picked up an All-American honor along the way.

The five men trying to replace him in 2013 have a combined nine receptions, 122 yards, one touchdown and shoot 32 percent from 3-point range.

But for the Irish, it’s all a matter of perspective.

“We’re all different. I don’t think we feel pressured as a unit to replace [Eifert],” junior tight end Troy Niklas said. “The offense is going to morph into doing what we’re good at, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Niklas is entering his second season at the tight-end spot, after spending his freshman year as a defensive end.
In 2012, the 6-foot-7, 250-pound Fullerton, Calif., native said it took time to pick up the offense. He eventually caught his first touchdown against Boston College, one of his five total receptions.

But according to the man nicknamed ‘Hercules,’ one year really does make a difference.

“Now it’s like second nature. I always thought it was pretty natural, but it was a little tougher to learn the offense and pick up all that stuff. But now that I know the offense, all those little technique things are coming pretty easily.”

In just one year, Niklas has gone from defensive lineman to veteran tight end, especially when it comes to showing former Irish basketball guard Joey Brooks the same ropes he learned last season.

“Joey’s doing well. He’s kind of been thrown into a storm,” Niklas said. “It’s not easy to switch sports like this in your senior year. … He’s doing really well. He’s staying positive, he’s learning a lot and getting better every day, and that’s the most important thing for him, to keep learning the offense and getting better.”

Yet Brooks is not the only Irish tight end enduring the learning process. Early enrollee Mike Heuerman joined the team in January to get a head start on learning the offense, and senior Alex Welch missed the entire 2012 season after tearing his ACL during summer training camp.

Welch didn’t see action during his freshman year in 2010 after coming in as a four-star recruit and only had one reception for eight yards in 2011.

Welch said he sought the advice of former Irish and current Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, who missed much of 2010 with a torn hamstring.

“I think this spring is really important for me just to get back into football shape and remember how you play the game and then come fall camp I’ll be ready,” Welch said. “I felt like I was playing at a pretty high level last fall and then after what happened, you kind of forget things.”

Out of the five, junior Ben Koyack has seen the most playing time in his career, appearing in all 24 games. In 2012, the 6-foot-5 tight end caught three passes for 39 yards but struggled to hold onto the ball throughout the season. And of the four, Koyack seems to be the go-to receiving threat, as opposed to run-blocking standouts Welch and Niklas.

“I feel like regardless of how well-rounded, there’s always stuff to work on, whether it’s breaking out of a route, getting out faster in blocking or a different technique,” Koyack said. “I think I’m definitely improving but there’s always going to be work to do.”

Eifert was a one-stop-shop in terms of tight ends, posing as a blocker, goal line threat and wide-out for the Irish.

That versatility could very well result in a first round selection in this month’s NFL Draft. But the 2013 collective is fine with doing things by committee, Koyack said.  

“We may not be put in the same exact situation as Tyler was put into, but as long as we do well in the situations we are put into, that’s pretty much the expectation of the group at this point,” he said.

With Eifert arguably leaving the biggest imprint of all Notre Dame tight ends following Rudolph, Anthony Fasano and John Carlson, the pressure is on for the next starter to carry on the tradition at “Tight End U.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s a pressure. It’s kind of like a prestige,” Welch said. “You feel good about yourself to be part of the tight ends at the University of Notre Dame. But at the same time we’re not trying to be any of those tight ends. We’re going to be ourselves.”

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agastel1@nd.edu