Tight Ends -- Top Trio Set if in Good HealthThe 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."
Remaining Spring QuestionsCan 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 ThoughtsKoyack'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…