Impressions: Tight End

A review of the team's most complete offensive position group heading into the off-season.

Cream of the crop

It's worth mentioning: Tyler Eifert would have started had Kyle Rudolph returned for his senior season in 2011 – of course, Rudolph would have as well, and the two tight end offense would have dominated, rather than simply served as part of, Brian Kelly's spread attack in Year Two. That's how important a piece, and how potentially dominant a player I believe Eifert will be, and from all accounts, the staff feels the same:

"It's really exciting watching Eifert right now," said offensive coordinator Charley Molnar earlier this spring. "He looks like an All-American-in-the-making, he really does. He plays with great confidence, he plays with great speed, and he has great ball skills."

The team's head coach was prescient regarding Eifert's ascent as early as last August.

"Oh yeah. He's a very good player," said Kelly nearly a month before Eifert's first career contest. "Again, I've had some good players at other schools at that position, but he's has good as I've coached."

I thought Eifert fared extremely well at the point as a first-year blocker late last season, and with one notable exception (vs. Stanford) as a move blocker as well – but that's what summer film study is for. I'll report back in May/June when I have something concrete other than memory from which to select…Regardless, I know Eifert competed at scrimmage and rarely felt the Irish lost any power up front when the first-year competitor took over for Rudolph, or in place of Mike Ragone

One of the five toughest grabs of the 13-game Irish season was the first of Eifert's career – an over-the-middle foray in which he was struck by Michigan safety Cameron Gordon, maintained possession, and gained about eight of the play's 17 yards following the catch…If the staff's offerings and my insistence that Eifert is one (maybe two) step(s) away from joining the program's elite at the position isn't enough, consider this from a hungover, yet astute, longtime Irish fan who visited my house in March, and decided 3 AM was good time to re-watch the Sun Bowl – his lone observation the next morning:

"That Eifert kid is good."

So there you have it…

True Depth?

Charley Molnar repeatedly sings his praises; he earned extended playing time in November as part of the team's power running game; and his love for the game is rivaled by few on the team, but Mike Ragone needs to become more of a threat as a pass-catcher as a 5th-year senior…The Jersey product has tremendous straight-line speed, but the only evidence of it between the lines during his collegiate career was an inspired full-field sprint following a blocked extra point to tackle an opposing safety in Notre Dame's blowout of Washington State – the final win of the Charlie Weis era…

Ragone has secured just nine receptions over the last two seasons – off the top of my head I can recall three blatant drops (including a two-point conversion shuffle pass at Pitt) during that span…Ragone's honesty and self-assessments are refreshing; his confidence appears intact (or back); and his toughness and desire never left – now its time to deliver with the occasional third-down grab to move the chains and to dominate, rather than simply perform well as a blocker – no more Asaph-ian full-speed misses leading the way through the hole in his final season.

Alex Welch appeared to move within a half-step of Ragone at the conclusion of spring ball; a few early season receptions could do wonders for his confidence…Welch becomes a crucial reserve (rather than luxury) if senior Michael Floyd remains suspended during early season matchups…If the redshirt-freshman can show well as a blocker, why would he sit behind his 5th-year teammate? Eifert can certainly handle the attached role when necessary...

There's also the reality that Welch could be this year's "Spring Fling" – and we should resist getting caught up in excessive pre-season coach-speak or my 7-on-7 practice impressions, as both are worlds apart from the real thing in September…With that in mind: Alex Welch can catch the football – he's the prototype detached tight end entering his first season as a game-day competitor.

2011 has to be the season in which Jake Golic establishes himself as a special teams player; he can then become a mainstay as a senior…A junior with three seasons of eligibility remaining, Golic's a developing, well-respected program player that would likely be far better in Year 5 than Year 3, but he needs to earn that extra season with extended field time over the next two autumns…

Tight ends coach Mike Denbrock, Molnar, and Kelly have all offered that Golic is a much-improved overall player since last spring, and last season (Kelly was fairly high on him last August), but with star freshman Ben Koyack joining the fold, and both Eifert and Welch returning for multiple seasons following 2011, Golic's time to step up as a physical special teams performer (and possibly Ragone's replacement next year as the power tight end) is upon him…

I can't imagine a team better stocked at the position than the 2011 Irish: Ragone (graduating), Eifert (3 yrs), Golic (3 yrs.), Welch (4 yrs.), Koyack (4-5 yrs)…but the squad's trio of backups (Ragone, Golic, and Welch) have totaled just 10 receptions in a combined 38 college games – only Ragone (35) and Golic (3) have played…The untested duo of Welch and Koyack will be far better players in 2011 if Eifert remains in good health for 11-13 games next fall.

(I'll have much more on the team's tight ends in the week-ending offensive wrap-up).


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