That's the bottom line, but conversations with Notre Dame staff and players reveal, nearly to a man, the belief that the team improved in Year 2 of the Brian Kelly era.
So what would qualify as tangible improvement from each returning Irish player? Statistics aren't an accurate measure, but it's all we have in May…
Next in the series: the team's tight ends, led by All-America Tyler Eifert.
Room for Improvement – Tyler EifertHe's the best pass-catching tight end in college football, both over the middle where men tread and boys shy, and down the seams where he might be the program's best of all-time. (If you remember Irv Smith down the seam, then you know why I included the "might.")
Eifert improved as an in-line blocker next year and he'll have to be at least as good this year, though he'll be detached, slotted, or split wide more often than he has his hand on the ground. But there are at least two aspects in which his pass-catching prowess can progress:
- Pay-dirt: It's not necessarily a bad sign if Eifert gains a few yards less than his record-setting 803, or records a few receptions fewer than his likewise record-breaking 63. But if he scores fewer than five touchdowns, its safe to assume the offense once again struggled in the red zone (or that the quarterback situation showed little improvement). Ken MacAfee set the position program record with six touchdowns in 1977. No other Irish tight end scored more than four since, until Eifert notched five last fall.
It's a lot to ask, but Eifert might need to break the record this fall. The best touchdown scorer in Notre Dame's long history of pass-catchers graduated. Eifert needs to contribute to the cause in picking up Michael Floyd's slack.
- Mo Money: Notre Dame's offense tracks "Money Receptions." That is, catches (and rushes) that move the chains. Eifert led the team with 22 last year, six more than Michael Floyd (16). In fact, until the bowl loss to FSU, each of Eifert's 3rd down (or 4th down) receptions last fall resulted in a first down.
The senior tight end will be the focus of every defense next fall. He needs to perform similarly on money downs for the offense to operate at peak performance.
Two to Make One? Alex Welch and Ben KoyackThree catches. That's it for Notre Dame's pair of backup tight ends, Welch and Koyack, plus Mike Ragone last fall. Of course, the 2010 backups, Eifert and Ragone, managed just four (Eifert had one before Kyle Rudolph was hurt in Game Six). 2009 backup Ragone had Bobby Burger combined for 8; 2008 backup Will Yeatman had two and 2007 backup (Ragone again) had one.
You get the picture. Backup tight ends don't catch passes at ND. In fact, no backup has hauled in double digit receptions since Jared Clark caught 15 in 2003, and that's largely because the offense was terrible and the starter, Anthony Fasano, had just 18. (And if you guessed Clark as the trivia answer before reading, please send me your resume...)
I think that trend will end this fall, with both Welch and Koyack capable of 10-13 receptions. One of them could secure 15-20 if he's deemed definitively better by Kelly & Co. and thus earns the lion's share of the playing time.
For now, consider 20 total catches and two total touchdowns legitimate progress for the team's top pair of backups. But the key will be when the catches occur. If Koyack or Welch becomes a weekly third-down target, or reliable red zone weapon, the Irish offense will take off in 2012. One needs to emerge; both would be ideal…and there's room for another if the Kelly sticks to the roster's strengths next fall.
Herculean Task – Troy NiklasPhysically, he's ready. Mentally, Niklas is more than prepared for the speed of the college game, starting once last fall and starring on the kickoff coverage unit.
Then again, he was a linebacker. Production, raw numbers, will have little to do with Niklas' impact on the offense next fall. He'll earn his wares as the hammer – the move tight end that seeks and destroys inside run blitzers or the in-line blocker that serves as a third offensive tackle in power sets.
Occasionally, they'll throw him a bone, err, pigskin. But if Niklas earns playing time, either extended or sporadic, expect it to be as a masher in the running game, at least in his first season on the offensive side of scrimmage. He can wage war with Koyack and Welch for the starting spot next spring…or they can move him to defensive end where he belongs (but that's just one man's opinion.)
For the team's fifth tight end, senior Jake Golic, earning a starting spot as a blocker on the team's kick return unit, and parlaying that into a role on the punt return team and beyond would qualify as a major contribution in his final season.