Spring Wrap: Tight Ends

Our third position review of spring ball looks at Notre Dame's tight end quartet, a group that will add another four-star prospect this summer with incoming pledge Durham Smythe. In this edition of our "Incomplete" series, O'Malley offers who stood out, who needs work, and what questions remain entering the summer.

Tight Ends -- Top Trio Set if in Good Health

The entire quintet of tight ends on head coach Brian Kelly's 2013 roster can return for 2014, with senior Alex Welch the only player in need of a fifth-year designation.

Spring Pecking Order: Though nothing will be set until at least midway through August camp, most believe junior Troy Niklas has the upper hand on Welch and junior Ben Koyack. Early enrollee freshman Mike Heuerman got a taste of varsity action this spring.

Spring Star: "Star" would be an overstatement in this case, but both tight ends coach Scott Booker and Kelly offered Koyack as an improved player from last fall. Said Kelly of the former FOX Sports NEXT No. 1 tight end prospect in 2011: "He's had a really good three weeks. It's good to see him having fun and smiling. He's feeling good about himself. He's a big, strong kid that we always believed was an outstanding pass catcher. He struggled a little bit with his confidence and I think you're seeing that confidence come back."

Aid on the Way: Four-star prospect Durham Smythe, who should benefit from a redshirt season as did Eifert, Welch, John Carlson, and Anthony Fasano, before him.

Remaining Spring Questions

Can Welch, out for all of 2012 due to August ACL surgery, regain the consistent form that afforded him No. 2 status behind since-graduated All-America tight end Tyler Eifert prior to injury? Can Koyack make good on his promise as the top pass-catching hight end from the 2011 recruiting class? Can he hold up as a blocker, both on the perimeter (his state weak spot) and in-line?

Has Niklas improved in pass protection? Can he become a 2, 3, even 4-reception per game option as an inline tight end? Can Welch beat defenses in the middle zones as he could pre-injury? Will two tight end formations again be the team's favorite offensive set as it was last fall? Can the trio occupy goal line packages as they did in 2012 with Eifert detached (or split wide)?

Final Thoughts

Koyack's final stats next fall are far less relevant than in which games he makes an impact. If the junior catches 25 passes, but 18 of them come against the likes of Temple, Navy, and Air Force, it won't provide enough aid to the passing attack…Expect roughly 70 percent of Niklas' receptions to occur within 8-10 yards of scrimmage -- he'll be a the hitch-route receiver of choice for Irish quarterbacks…

Welch might not be targeted for more than 15 passes next fall, but he's talented enough to make them count…Key to the offense's evolution is avoiding what at present seems likely: Koyack as the receiving option; Welch as the blocker and Niklas as the regular…Heuerman should be withheld from action barring injury to one of the veteran trio; ditto Smythe…

Eifert was targeted for a whopping 96 passes over the team's 13-game, 2012 season. Said a self-aware Niklas of that number: "I can definitely say that we won't see that many. 100 percent. Even cumulatively."

Like Koyack, Niklas needs to make his 25-35 receptions count, especially near the goal line and in 3rd-and-4 situations.

Next in the series: The quartet of quarterbacks…

Intro to Series

A key defensive line prospect. The nation's best high school linebacker. Two punters (phew!). The offense's quickest player. Two of the defense's three best cornerbacks. One of its three best inside linebackers. Two of its five best safety prospects. Two running backs capable of winning weekly roles. Two freshmen pass targets (one already on campus) capable of filling in at the back end of the rotation. Countless special teams contributors.

The list of potential -- and in many cases, certain -- 2013 commodities not involved in Saturday's quirky Blue Gold Game ranks as one of the spring game's most relevant stories, and leads to my final grade on head coach Brian Kelly's Irish as they exit a 15-session, five-week spring:

Incomplete.

Just as it did in 2012 -- a national runner-up season and the best in 19 years for the program -- Notre Dame's 2013 football team will be made whole by its first-time scrimmage contributors.

That list last fall included major contributions from the likes of Tony Springmann, Danny Spond, Keivarae Russell, Matthias Farley, Sheldon Day, DaVaris Daniels, Daniel Smith, Chris Brown, Nicky Baratti, Elijah Shumate, and of course, Everett Golson.

"We're also going to bring in a number of freshmen that I'm certain are going to be involved in special teams, especially some of those bigger-bodied guys," said Kelly during his spring wrap-up press conference. "You've got (Michael) Deeb and (Doug) Randolph and Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield just to name a few. We've got some guys coming in, some DBs, in (Devin) Butler and (Rashad) Kinlaw. There is going to be an influx of talented guys that can help us in that area."

And from scrimmage as well, not only the freshmen, but those returning from injury, little-used players from 2012, and a host of others. The only guarantee for 2013 is that September's lot of key contributors will differ -- perhaps greatly -- from November's.

Over the next three days at Irisheyes.com we'll conclude our review of spring ball 2013 with a position-by-position look at where each unit stands, and from who it will receive aid in August camp and throughout 2013.

For our review of the running backs, Click here, and for the wide receivers, here.


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