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Football

Koyack eyes starting spot

| Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Irish could find themselves with some solid depth at tight end if this offseason’s work pays off when the regular season rolls around.

Irish senior tight end Ben Koyack runs toward the end zone during Notre Dame's 37-34 win over Arizona  State on Oct. 5, 2013. With the early departure of Troy Niklas for the NFL, Koyack will have the opportunity to seize the starting job in his final season.Kevin Song | The Observer

Irish senior tight end Ben Koyack runs toward the end zone during Notre Dame’s 37-34 win over Arizona State on Oct. 5, 2013. With the early departure of Troy Niklas for the NFL, Koyack will have the opportunity to seize the starting job in his final season.

Former tight end Troy Niklas declared early for the NFL draft, but Notre Dame retains senior tight end Ben Koyack, who averaged 17.1 yards per reception and hauled in three touchdown passes in 2013.

Now poised to be the No. 1 tight end, Koyack seems ready to break out after last season’s successful campaign. Irish tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Scott Booker said Koyack is making progress in his new role as a “confident senior.”

“I think that just the way he’s coming every day, prepared, ready to go, watching the film before we watch the film as a unit, talking to the guys, talking to [sophomore tight end] Mike Heuerman, going out and eating with those guys, and just showing them how to be Notre Dame football players, and specifically Notre Dame tight ends, and the expectations that are put on us on a day-in, day-out basis, so in all those facets, he’s been doing a better job, and he’ll continue to grow,” Booker said.

Heuerman and fellow sophomore tight end Durham Smythe did not see action last year, but they will join Koyack in 2014 as Notre Dame’s main considerations at the position.

Booker said Smythe and Heuerman started to settle in with the Irish during the 14 spring practices.

“They’re more comfortable just being college football players and doing the techniques that we’ve taught them,” Booker said. “[…] whenever the season comes in 2013, for example, those guys were red-shirted. They weren’t always in our meetings because they were sometimes with the scout teams, so now it’s a chance for them to really dive into how we want them to do things, and it’s different than what they did in high school, and it’s a learning curve, but I really liked how they practiced, how they came to work every day for the first 14.”

Part of that learning curve has come in the form of experience in non-game-action situations, Booker said. With that foundation, the tight ends can adopt the physical mentality the Irish look for at the position.

“Like I said first, it’s just being able to come every day and compete against the high level of competition day in and day out, and that’s the first thing we try and teach them, and that goes back to Coach [Paul] Longo preparing them in the weight room and so on,” Booker said.

But then, as far as specifically a tight end, everything starts with being able to be physical up there. I know that everybody sees [former tight end] Tyler Eifert catching balls and [former tight end] Kyle [Rudolph] catching balls and [former tight end] Troy [Niklas], but you’ve got to be physical. We have to be an extension of the offense.”

As great as those kinds of flashy offensive plays are, the tight ends have to learn how to block first, Booker said.

“So we want to have a physical mentality, and those guys have to understand how to block, so we just teach them the mechanics of footwork, hand placement, pad level and how we want them to block,” Booker said. “And then we go from there, obviously running routes and how we have to do things in our offense with the tight ends, formationally, motion-wise, everything because we do a lot with our tight ends. We put a lot on them, and they have to be ready to go mentally as well as understand the techniques we want them to have.”

Smythe and Heuerman have taken the preparatory steps but still have to prove themselves in game action. The last time either took a regular-season, in-game hit was in high school.

“In a game, it’s been since my senior year, and that’s tough, but that’s also what drives me,” Heuerman said.

With the opportunities Notre Dame offers its tight ends, Heuerman, Smythe and Koyack have reason to be driven.

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