Balancing Act

In 2011, tight end Tyler Eifert served as the perfect compliment to headliner Michael Floyd. This fall, Eifert was the team's go-to target and the ring-leader of a much more balanced receiving corps under the guidance of passing game coordinator, Mike Denbrock.

Notre Dame's only pass-catching weapon of record entering the 2012 season predictably proved to be its best target by season's end. But it was the development of All-America Tyler Eifert's teammates that allowed the Irish offense to evolve en route to a first ever 12-0 regular season finish.

"We knew that we weren't going to have one guy like a Michael Floyd," said head coach Brian Kelly of the team's balanced passing attack. "We knew that we were going to be challenged to get the ball to Eifert, but we knew that he was going to impact our game considerably because of the way we use our formations. So I'm not going to stand here and tell you (balance) is exactly the way we wanted it to go, but it was the direction that we pointed it, and knew that we were going to need a collection of guys to step up for us, young and old."

Augmenting Eifert's team-leading receptions (44), pass targets (78), and touchdown (4) totals was junior "X" receiver T.J. Jones, who finished second in both receptions (43) and targets (74) while tying Eifert for the team-lead in receiving scores. Throw in RB/Slot weapon Theo Riddick (35/54/1) and newcomer DaVaris Daniels (25 receptions on 39 targets), and Notre Dame's passing attack found enough weapons to alleviate Eifert's burden and mitigate the loss of the record-setting Floyd.

(Click here for a look at Notre Dame's pass targets through 12 games.)

But the efforts of a versatile supporting cast would have likely gone for naught without Eifert occupying the attention of opposing defenses.

"We knew that we had a plan for Tyler, that we wanted to use him in multiple places," said receivers coach and passing game coordinator Mike Denbrock. "We knew he was a matchup nightmare for defenses and we needed to get the football in his hands. That's where it started. As the season went along, the success he had helped push that envelope even further, and I still think there are other things you're going to see that guy do."

May the best men win

Eifert distributed his touchdowns aligned solo to the boundary (Navy and Stanford), in-line (Brigham Young), and detached from scrimmage (Wake Forest). He likewise drew pass interference calls -- six through 12 games -- from each spot as well.

Combined with backup tight end Troy Niklas, the tight end position accounted for all seven pass interference penalties drawn by Irish pass targets in 2012. That could change on January 7 as T.J. Jones and his fellow wideouts draw a preponderance of man coverage on the main stage.

"Beating one-on-one matchups, it's going to come down to how sharp our routes are," said Jones of the sticky 'Bama secondary. "If its a contested ball, it comes down to who wants the ball more. And the mindset I've run with this year is if the ball is in the air, it's mine."

Jones' mindset helped provide a team-best 37 first down/touchdown receptions among his 43 catches this fall. His statistical spike was a long-time coming, as Jones and his fellow perimeter targets prepared for their certain increase in opportunity during the dog days of summer.

"We switched it up this year, did more drill work," he said of the group's off-season emphasis. "Fast, speed, ladders, sprints -- that more than long-distance stuff we did in the past. I think that helped us build our legs up to withstand camp and be season. Then lifting harder during the season."

"I've really been trying to go at it with the other receivers I lift with: Danny Smith, Robby Toma, and John Goodman. We really been trying to push it to know the weight room does help and we know how much better we feel this year.

Toma finished fifth on the team with 24 receptions and 38 targets. Goodman made the most of his seven grabs with three touchdowns and another crucial third-down grab to keep alive the game-winning drive vs. Purdue. With the exception of Eifert, Smith was the team's best blocker on the perimeter, adding key in-line blocks on crucial touchdown runs vs. Oklahoma (2), and Brigham Young.

Their collective work fit well with the necessary all-for-one, one-for-all approach that permeated the 2012 roster.

"I would say there's a healthy competition," said Jones. "If we push individually harder, that forces your counterpart, the other receivers, to push themselves harder. We're not really into who makes the big play that week, we just all prepare the same way so we're all prepared to make that play if it comes to us."

Eifert and Jones accounted for more than half of the team's first down receptions (a combined 64 of 125), but there were 10 different pass-catchers who contributed at least one gain of 20 yards or more during the season, eight of which turned the trick multiple times including Eifert's team-high 12.

"Nothing against Tyler Eifert's quickness, but (at receiver) you're playing against a guy that can run a little faster than you can and may be a little quicker, so I think it forced him to understand, 'What's the animal that I'm hunting here?'" said Denbrock of his former pupil's tutelage as a boundary wide receiver dating back to last spring.

"Is it a big, physical guy? Is it a smaller, quick guy? What type of technique do I use? How do I adjust what I'm doing so I can still have success vs. a guy like this? I think its helped him take his game to another level."

Notre Dame's next opponent will offer the highest level of defense any player on the Irish roster has faced to date. And at some point, Eifert, Jones, and one or more of their unsung cohorts will be asked to make a contested catch or run after the grab in order to keep a drive -- or national championship dream -- alive.

"For the receivers as a group, because of the defense they play, it comes down to who wants it more," said Jones.

Both sides will want it plenty with the championship at stake, and big-time players make big-time plays when the lights are brightest.

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