Trending Toward the Twelve

Irish tight ends Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack are approaching a program record for combined single season touchdowns at the position.

Notre Dame junior tight end Ben Koyack spent the first five games of 2013 much like he did the last 10 of 2012 -- not catching passes.

Or more accurate, never having the chance to do so.

Five games passed from the 2013 season and though Koyack started once and played often, not once did the former Oil City, Pennsylvania five-star prospect have a ball thrown in his direction.

Times have changed.

A quick boundary side out route at Cowboys Stadium resulted in a 19-yard touchdown vs. Arizona State. Two games later at Air Force he scored again, 22 yards on a wheel route, again aligned to the boundary left. A win over Navy brought another score, this time as the recipient of a Tommy Rees bootleg toss to the right, Koyack's catch-and-run covering 17 yards and providing a third quarter go-ahead score.

Four receptions for 74 yards at Pittsburgh followed, and after not seeing a pass thrown in his direction after September 15, 2012 until October 5, 2013 -- a span of 15 games -- Koyack now ranks fifth among Irish receivers in both receptions and receiving yards on the season. Nine catches, 158 yards, and three scores.

A fourth notch in the latter category was taken away by the replay official in his team's last game, a 28-21 loss at Pittsburgh. Playing less than 90 miles from his home town, a leaping Koyack secured a 38-yard corner route from Rees but was deemed down by contact upon further review, his apparent tumbling touchdown instead marked inside the Panthers one-yard line.

"As long as we scored the touchdown in the end, it doesn't matter to me," said Koyack of an ensuing rushing score by TJ Jones two snaps later. "But yeah, it would have been nice."

Koyack will have to settle for a larger role in the team's passing attack. He's started three of the last five games and of his nine grabs, eight have gone for touchdowns or first downs.

"I'm just trying to take advantage of opportunities," said Koyack of his increased work in the passing game. "The coaches have given me more chances, been more confident in me and I've tried to succeed as much as possible.

"It takes awhile, you have to develop chemistry. I think once it starts, it really starts to snowball and I've been fortunate enough that it's happened."

In Tandem

Koyack's recent ascent augments the season-long surge of classmate Troy Niklas, Tuesday named a semi-finalist for the prestigious Mackey Award presented annually to the nation's top tight end. Former position-mate Tyler Eifert took home the honor last year after finishing second in 2011.

The 6'7" 270-pound Niklas escaped Eifert's shadow by casting a presence of his own. After a 2012 season spent mostly as an in-line blocker (5 receptions, 125 yards, 1 score), Niklas felt he had something to prove to doubters as a pass-catcher.

"I looked at it that way a little bit, especially because I blocked so much last year. It was one thing I wanted to do, let everyone know I was pretty good at catching the ball, too," Niklas said. "It's been a lot more fun too, going into games and being a part of the passing attack."

Niklas has noticed his cohort enjoying the process much more of late as well.

"Ben's getting a lot more confident as he's doing well," said Niklas. "You can see it in his eyes, he's happier. I'm happy for him because he's been working so hard in practice and now it shows in the games."

Niklas scored five touchdowns through the season's first seven games but none since. He remains two behind the single-season record for touchdown receptions at the position.

"Yeah, (he's taken them away)," joked Niklas of Koyack's recent contributions as a touchdown maker. "We've just been running a lot of two tight end sets and he's found the end zone."

The pair together has scored eight times, tied for the second-highest single-season total for the position in program history with the 1977 trio of Ken MacAfee (6), Mark Czaja (1) and Kevin Hart (1).

Not since the 1958 quartet of Monty Stickles (7), Gary Myers, Dick Royer, and Bob Wetoska (one apiece), has the position found pay dirt more often than have Niklas and Koyack this season. (Eventual first round NFL draft picks Derek Brown, 4, and Irv Smith, 3, combined for 7 in 1991.)

"I think we've always had a lot of two tight end stuff out there," said Koyack of the oft-referenced "12 package" of 2012 and 2013. "Teams have given us some good looks. My play and Troy's play over the last couple weeks has maybe given (the staff) the confidence to put us both out there. If we show it in practice, we get a chance to go out on the field and execute like we're supposed to."

It took both until their third seasons at the program to make such an impact though Koyack played sparingly as a freshman in 2011 and Niklas was a linebacker. Both first studied under one of the nation's and program's best in Eifert.

"I knew that it would be a process and it would take time for me to develop my skills," said Niklas of taking practice-field performance to game days. "That's usually what happens. Tyler worked his way up. So have I, so has Ben. Same thing with (freshman) Durham (Smythe). It's all going to happen with patience."

Such is life at Tight End U. Top Stories