Tight EndsThe 2011 unit consisted of a dominant player and two understudies – the latter only an issue had junior All-American Tyler Eifert elected to forgo his final season for the NFL Draft. Eifert announced last week that he'll return for his senior season and the position will rank as or among the nation's best next fall as a result.
Departing: 5th-year senior Mike Ragone is technically allowed to apply for a sixth season of eligibility due to a pair of medical red-shirts (2008 and 2011) though in November, Irisheyes.com was told the snake-bitten Ragone would not pursue another year at Notre Dame.
Players Returning: The nation's best and two of its top recent prospects highlight a quartet of tight ends for Brian Kelly and position coach Mike Denbrock heading into the 2012 season.
- Tyler Eifert – Broke longstanding program records at his position for both receptions (63) and receiving yards (803) while scoring more touchdowns than any tight end (5) since 1977 when the immortal Ken MacAfee tallied six. Eifert returns as the best offensive player on the 2012 squad…
- Jake Golic – Must overcome a major back injury to make an impact as a senior next fall. Golic has two seasons of eligibility remaining but is a distant fourth on the depth chart behind the young pups listed below…
- Alex Welch – Promising sophomore caught the first pass of his career vs. Navy in Game Eight last year. None of that falls under the "promising" category. Time for Welch to step up for the receiver-poor Irish in 2012…
- Ben Koyack – Caught a pass in Week Four in his home-state (at Pittsburgh), but like Welch, was used mostly in power formations as a blocker throughout the season. Purportedly a true downfield threat that rarely ventured 10 yards downfield in his role last season…
Potentially Returning: Ragone, though highly unlikely.
Incoming: None, at present. Not offered but explored prospect Taylor McNamara chose Oklahoma in late-December. The Irish have set their early sights on the 2013 class including top prospects Adam Breneman (Camp Hill, PA) and Mike Heuerman (Naples, Fla.)
Potential Position Switches: None appear on tap, nor would any make sense other than to add emergency depth, but wide receiver (former quarterback) Luke Massa has the frame at 6'4" 220 to roll with the unit in a pinch. Massa could then serve as a detached receiver from the position if pressed into unlikely action.
Incoming offensive tackle prospect Mark Harrell has played tight end in high school and could also fill in if the need arose in 2012. Harrell would be in the opposite role of Massa's (unlikely) emergency, serving as an extra blocker in multiple tight end sets.
Hunch: Koyack emerges as a quality No. 2 next fall, catching the sixth-highest number of passes on the Irish team in 2012. Koyack and Welch are then a strong 1-2 punch in 2013 as Eifert will forgo his fifth-season of eligibility for the NFL Draft.
Projected Spring Depth ChartBelow is my best guess at both sets exiting spring ball with the starter not in question:
First Unit: Tyler Eifert – two seasons of eligibility remaining
Second Unit: Ben Koyack – three seasons of eligibility remaining
Third Unit: Alex Welch – three seasons of eligibility remaining
Reserve: Jake Golic – two seasons of eligibility remaining
Hunch Part II: Like the Andrew Hendrix/Everett Golson scenario at the end of spring 2011, Koyack and Welch will be named 2A and 2B by the coaching staff with the familiar "They're both going to play" refrain. Only in this case, both will, as head coach Brian Kelly turns to his talented tight ends to move the chains early and often in 2012.
Note(s): Next in our position previews – the Irish defensive backs.