Spring Musings: Tight End

Irisheyes.com continues to wrap up its coverage of Spring Football 2012 with O'Malley's position reviews, thoughts, questions, answers and observations. Next in the series: the Irish tight ends.

Click here for a review of the offensive line.

Head coach Brian Kelly and new tight ends coach Scott Booker are blessed with enviable tiered depth in the position, starting with a returning first team All-American and program record-breaker from 2011.

The Nation's Best

He'll line up wide; he'll be motioned across scrimmage and out of the backfield. He'll detach, align with a tackle, and most of all, he'll attack every spot on the football field, including 10-feet in the air. Senior tight end Tyler Eifert is the best pass-catcher at the position at the best college for tight ends since 1977, when three-time All-America Ken MacAfee set single-season and career records for receiving yards, touchdowns, and receptions.

Eifert bested MacAfee's top season for yards and receptions last fall; both career marks should fall in 2012. He's the best player on the offense, the best downfield tight end in the nation, and Notre Dame's money player on 3rd down. If the team's green wide receivers can pull their weight, Eifert will put up numbers untouched by future all star recruits to the position.

The only question in Eifert's game: Can he defeat a preponderance of double teams with Michael Floyd no longer in the mix?

The Second Starter

Both have a natural feel for the passing game and a knack for creating separation from the defender. Both have strong hands, athleticism for the position, and the ability to high point the football. But both sophomore Ben Koyack and redshirt-sophomore Alex Welch will attempt to earn a starting job in the offense's "12" personnel package due to their still-developing in-line blocking prowess.

Koyack showed well in the Blue Gold game; Welch purportedly had the better spring. Both should see September scrimmage time but its' likely only one will be able to establish a consistent rhythm playing alongside Eifert, a necessity for a young player's confidence. Koyack forged his way onto the field last season, jockeying for playing time with Welch throughout the campaign. Neither was ahead of then 5th-year senior Mike Ragone, who thrived in the role of in-line blocker in both 2010 and the first two games of 2011 (Ragone tore his ACL, was lost for the season, and has enrolled at Kansas after being granted a 6th-season by the NCAA).

The better blocker will win the job, but with the Irish receiving corps bereft of proven playmakers, the opportunity for chain-moving receptions will be available all season as well.

April Assessment: Head coach Brian Kelly noted Welch took a slight lead following the team's 14th practice (pre- Blue Gold game), but my guess is Koyack will earn the most playing time in September. The situation remains fluid, regardless.

The Wild Card

Troy Niklas ended the spring sidelined by a concussion coupled with or on the heels of an intestinal issue, missing at least the final five practices (including the spring game). Missed time could be a hindrance in his conversion from outside linebacker, but the 6'7" 255-plus pound Niklas has a trump card: he's easily the most physical tight end candidate to support Eifert.

April assessment: Niklas will be a far more productive tight end in 2013 than next fall, but his in-line blocking and ability to clear space as a move tight end (picture an H-Back or motioning fullback) will help him carve a niche in goal line and short-yardage situations. I stand polar opposite to those that believe Niklas immediately became the team's second-best tight end upon his transition from defense. He might be the second-best tight end prospect for the next level, or even for 2013-14, but he's well behind the Koyack/Welch pairing in terms of college football Saturdays in 2012.

Last chance and (eventually) incoming

Senior Jake Golic has fought through injuries and illness during the Kelly era and his best chance at playing time next fall will be on special teams. Always a willing blocker, Golic should compete for a spot on the kick and punt return teams – the latter in desperate need of niche players that will give 100 percent to improve the dreadful unit.

With Eifert likely moving to the NFL and Golic to the real world following the 2012 season, 2013 Big Skill recruit Jacob Matuska (6'4" 220) will likely get a Scout Team assignment at tight end as a true freshman (in '13), though his future home could be outside linebacker. The Irish do not have a tight end among the crop hitting campus in June.

Roster Rundown

Top Dog: Tyler Eifert
Indispensable: Eifert
BCS Bowl Level Performers: Eifert; potentially Ben Koyack and Alex Welch by 2013 and Troy Niklas by 2013-14
Most Important that he Improve from 2011: Alex Welch --- Koyack found the field for 12 games as a true freshman last fall – he's on schedule at least developmentally if not in actual production. 2012 will be Welch's third year in the program and its time for production to match potential.
Spring Star: Eifert, but that was a given. Welch received the late-spring nod from Kelly, not to mention a few regular practice visitors, so he's the de facto selection.
August/September Sleepers: Look for Koyack to make 2-3 important plays in September while Eifert dominates the stat sheet.

Quote to Note: "I think if you look at some of the models that are out there, New England Patriots for example, utilization of (Rob) Gronkowski and (Aaron) Hernandez. We see Tyler as more of a Hernandez kind of player. I think we know what the Patriots did, they had him in the backfield running plays. Tyler Eifert has that ability to be moved all over the field. He can be to the wide field, to the short field, it just gives up more flexibility.

"Formationally now, we can really keep you off balance. We could have two tight ends on the field and line up in the power formation but run five wide because of the versatility. He just gives us great versatility. I don't want to just say it's Troy, it's Ben and it's Alex (Welch). All those guys have a chance to give us that versatility."
– Brian Kelly on the team's tight end situation

5th-years: None
Seniors (Eligible through 2013): Tyler Eifert and Jake Golic
Junior (Eligible through 2014): Alex Welch
Sophomores (Eligible through 2014): Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas
Incoming Freshmen: None
2013 Pledges: Jacob Matsuska could play either tight end or outside linebacker at the outset of his career. (Note:

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