Lather, Rinse, Repeat?

Tyler Eifert's graduation marks the fourth straight starting tight end the Notre Dame football program helped develop into an NFL player. Now a nearly uninterrupted 40-season string of producing pro talent begins its fifth decade, headed by junior Troy Niklas and a host of others for spring ball 2013.

Notre Dame's 2013 offense faces a tall task this spring in its quest to find a replacement for one of the program's best players, tight end Tyler Eifert.

What else is new?

Recent Irish squads were forced to replace Anthony Fasano (2nd round draft pick, 2006), John Carlson (2nd round draft pick, 2008), and Kyle Rudolph (2nd round draft pick, 2011), and arguably improved at the position in each instance.

The latter will be a tall order with the loss of Eifert, the program's best pure pass-catcher at the position since Ken MacAfee left South Bend in the late 70s.

At the ready this spring are a quartet of former four- and five-star prospects, led by 2012 converted linebacker Troy Niklas.

Changing of the Guard

Four of Notre Dame's five tight ends will be available to Kelly during the spring session, though its not yet known if returning senior Alex Welch (ACL tear last August) can participate in any full-contact drills.

Position Coach: Scott Booker -- Enters his second season as tight ends coach after previously serving in 2010-2011 as an offensive intern.

Spring Combatants: Senior (redshirt-junior) Alex Welch, juniors Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack, early enrollee freshman Mike Heuerman

Incoming Talent: Four-star prospect Durham Smythe will hit campus with 18 other freshmen in late June.

Leading Returning Receiver: Niklas secured five passes for 75 yards and a touchdown on 11 pass targets. Aside from graduated All-American Tyler Eifert, Niklas was the only other Irish player to draw a pass interference penalty in 2012.

A relative neophyte to the position entering his junior season, 2013 is expected to be a leap year in South Bend -- not on the calendar, but for the 6'7" 260-pound Niklas -- an athlete with the frame to dominate as a blocker, and the feet, hands, and athleticism to beat linebackers down the seam and safeties for the ball in the air.

His role, and that of classmate Ben Koyack and returning injured senior Alex Welch will doubtless be different than the departed Eifert's, who spent more time at the "W" wide receiver position (aligned to the boundary) than any other spot on the field last fall.

"12" to Tango Again?

Eifert's move to the perimeter opened the door for a true two tight end offense last season. It was the preferred personnel grouping (the Irish refer to it as their "12" package), with either Niklas or Koyack often inline, or at least motioned across scrimmage, acting as a lead blocker for the team's runners or extra pass protector for quarterback Everett Golson.

In 2013, neither Niklas, nor Koyack, nor the recovering Welch is likely to earn many snaps as a boundary receiver, the two tight end set might give way to an extra receiver -- a more traditional spread alignment -- unless the tight ends prove too tough to stop in tandem.

The guess here is the team's wide receivers show better through spring, summer and August and a three-receiver (two perimeter, one slot) set becomes the base attack, though with two tight ends receiving plenty of play.

As for the third tight end, a package used often last season -- and on the bulk of touchdowns scored in the season's opening month -- it might be less necessary outside the 10-yard line, as the team's top offensive player is no longer at the tight end position.

Golden Opportunity

Semester enrollee and Florida High School four-star Mike Heuerman enters in an enviable position: six months ahead of fellow freshman Durham Smythe in South Bend and into a spring session that will likely see Welch limited by his continued recovery from knee surgery just seven months ago.

Heuerman should see plenty of playing time when during 11-on-11 work (full pads) and in scrimmages and the Blue Gold Game, as there's no reason to rush Welch in his recovery. Due largely to the potential of Niklas, Welch has been written off by many, but the senior from Cincinnati was ahead of both Niklas and Koyack at the time of his injury last fall. He'll be more than a calendar year removed from the injury when the season kicks off and, more important, could serve as a late-season "draft pick" as he progresses with more playing time.

Heuerman is likely a year away from contention for a starting spot (or as the No. 2 tight end), but that journey begins this spring where more reps might be available as the de facto No. 3 tight end than next spring when all five (including Smythe and a potential 5th-season for Welch) could be in the mix.

Still untested, or at least trusted

Welch has one career catch, Koyack four, Niklas five.

The position's pre-season ranking is based more on potential than production, a dangerous reality in the college game.

None of the veteran prospects can match Eifert's quickness, athleticism, or natural pass-catching skills. All will have to match his desire to improve and be the best if the Irish offense is to improve from 2012 (whether the attack includes two tight ends or not, one is mandatory for the running game).

Koyack remains a wild-card in the passing game as the former five-star was purportedly the best pass-catching tight end in his 2011 class. If that projection could come close to reality this fall, Notre Dame's offense will be difficult to stop (and Koyack could find time on the boundary as did Eifert).

But the eventual winner of a starting position will likely be the unit's best blocker, both in the running game and in pass protection. Neither Niklas or Koyack was consistent in regards to the latter last fall.

Eifert was targeted for 96 passes last season (including six drawn pass interference penalties). Koyack and Niklas? A combined 18.

The latter number will likely triple, with heavy division of labor expected at the position next fall -- the pecking order will begin to fall into place this spring.

Note: To read our previously published spring preview articles, click the links below:

The Next Wave: Running Backs
Searching for Six: Wide Receivers Top Stories