Opportunity Knocked

Tyler Eifert's ascent from third-string to proven playmaker serves as a crucial teaching point for tight end coach Mike Denbrock's 2011 quintet.

At this time last August, Tyler Eifert was a third-string tight end, one earning ample practice reps due to injuries suffered by All-America candidate Kyle Rudolph and veteran backup Mike Ragone.

One year later, Eifert is a John Mackey Award nominee, one of four key playmakers according to head coach, Brian Kelly, and nearly every die-hard fan or Irish media members' selection as a breakout candidate for the upcoming season.

His blend of athletic talent and toughness aside, what was instrumental in Eifert's progression from prospect to playmaker?

"I think when you have two guys that are really ‘The Guy' it almost makes it more relaxing and easier to just go out there and play free-spirited and not really have as many things to worry about," Eifert said of his approach as a third-stringer last August. "When you're not worrying about things on the field you're able to play better. Plus I have confidence in what I can do."

Seven starts, 27 receptions, 352 yards, and two touchdowns followed; now Eifert ranks as an unassuming leader of his position group and within the offense. It's an offense that the Fort Wayne product believes hit its stride late last season.

"It's our chemistry," he offered as the unit's strength. "Early in the year last year you probably didn't see that (chemistry) but the last couple of games we had adapted on the field, knowing what the quarterback was seeing and working to open areas."

Throughout the ranks

At Tuesday's media day, Kelly offered that 5th-year senior Mike Ragone had missed a healthy portion of August camp with a strained quad. Will the latest in a string of maladies for the snake-bitten Ragone impact his preparation for this, his final season?

"I don't know that it hurts Mike that much, though obviously missing time is never a good thing," said tight ends coach Mike Denbrock. "I don't know if it hurts him because of his role within the framework of our offense right now."

That role appears to be more in-line blocker in the team's power attack than viable pass-catching option. Not that Denbrock wouldn't welcome the latter.

"I don't think there's anyone associated with our program that doesn't want to see Mike Ragone have success," Denbrock offered Tuesday. "He deserves it; he's a great team guy; he works his tail off every day; nobody cares more about what we're doing than he does, and it would be fantastic to see him run and catch the ball a little bit, because I know he's anxious to have that opportunity."

Ragone has been the team's fastest straight line tight end since he stepped on campus in 2007 but has just 10 career catches and 99 yards to his credit. A pair of torn ACL's, a serious bout of dehydration plus a concussion, and of late, a quadriceps injury have stunted his growth in the passing game, though offensive coordinator Charley Molnar expected his bruising No. 2 tight end to emerge in that manner as well.

"I think Mike will catch more balls this year because he's going to feel more comfortable," Molnar offered as the spring session closed. "Mike has now learned the flow of our offense, how to adapt, and read coverages, and to move with the defense and find open areas so much better than he did a year ago. He has great vertical speed. He can be a real threat, but he has to know how to use that speed, get in and out of breaks and work windows."

Working those windows in Ragone's stead are sophomore Alex Welch and freshman Ben Koyack. Welch was withheld from action last season as a true freshman and Koyack has just 13 collegiate practices to his credit.

"Ben has really strong hands and from all indications he's really, really smart football player," said Molnar of his initial impression of the freshman. "Those two things are really great attributes for a tight end."

Eifert has been impressed with his younger competitor as well.

"He's athletic, he has good hands, and as soon as he learns the offense he's going to be really good," Eifert offered before adding, "He's big, so just learning the offense is the main thing."

(Koyack is listed at 6'5" 253 pounds, the second-tallest behind Eifert but the heaviest of the position's quintet of competitors.)

As with Eifert, who repeatedly offers he needs to improve at the point of attack, the sophomore Welch possesses a self-awareness regarding his strengths as an offensive weapon, but is equally cognizant of his current weakness.

"Both," Welch admitted when asked which aspect of blocking is the greater challenge, in-line or in-space. "You have to have the whole package. It's technique that's very important."

With Eifert firmly entrenched as the starter and Ragone the obvious second tight end in power packages, a trio of class-tiered tight ends (junior Jake Golic, Welch, and Koyack) will continue to push for time over a grueling 12-game slate – one in which frontline and second unit injuries are guaranteed to occur.

"Alex Welch, Ben Koyack and Jake Golic have had to take a lot more snaps and that's helped a great deal," Denbrock noted in the wake of Ragone's camp injury. "We're fortunate that we have some depth at the tight end position so if the door swings open we have guys that have been in position to step in and do a nice job."

Former third-string tight end and current All-America candidate Tyler Eifert would concur.

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