Seniority, suddenly

Senior Ben Koyack returns as the graybeard of a tight end unit that goes three-deep this spring, five-deep next fall, and has only the Oil City, Pennsylvania-product among its ranks with previous collegiate experience.

One year ago today, Notre Dame's spring depth chart included a trio of upperclassmen and an early enrollee. Each member of the trio, senior Alex Welch and juniors Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack, had legitimate starting aspirations, at least as part of Notre Dame's two tight end offense, and freshman Mike Heuerman had a chance to play early as a luxury item for quarterback Everett Golson and Brian Kelly's offense.

Fast forward to the present where Welch will play his fifth season in Cincinnati, Niklas his first pro season in a city to be determined this April, and Golson in his first game since January 7, 2013.

What remains behind for the tight end crew in South Bend, Koyack, Heuerman, and the latter's classmate Durham Smythe, is a lesson in a program's (and fan base's) best laid plans:

You never know.

"Obviously when (Niklas) said he was going (pro), I was like, ‘Okay, that's kind of a shock,'' said Koyack of the Mackey Award semi-finalist's unexpected early departure.

The shock means an immediate change in role for Koyack, one he's prepared for in earnest dating back to an Irish defeat last September.

"I know (against) Oklahoma we had a good offensive scheme," said Koyack of the team's 220-yard rushing output vs. the Sooners in a 35-21 defeat. "For me that was something I really needed. I know the game before that (Michigan State) I struggled, I struggled pretty bad," he added of a game in which Koyack missed crucial, highly visible blocks. "Coming into the next week, that they still put confidence in me, and then going out and doing well is something I realy enjoyed. It was just being able to build on that.

"Through that I think coach (Brian Kelly) built more confidence in me and that's what made the rest of the season better."

Koyack's first crucial collegiate catch came in Cowboys Stadium

The rest of the season began with a touchdown catch in Cowboys Stadium against Arizona State and included each of Koyack's 10 receptions for 171 yards and first three touchdowns of his Irish career. Prior to that point, Koyack hadn't caught a pass in Notre Dame's last seven games dating back to a meaningless catch vs. Wake Forest in a 38-0 victory. In 2012.

To further illustrate how far removed Koyack had been from the Irish passing game prior to his score vs. the Sun Devils, the former No. 1 ranked tight end prospect per hadn't been targeted for a pass (aside from the aforementioned catch against the Demon Deacons) since Game Three of the 2012 season. A remarkable 15-game span.

Buoyed by better blocking and his trip to pay dirt in Arlington, Koyack steadily improved and his eight receptions in a three-game span (Air Force, Navy, Pittsburgh) ranked second on the squad behind Team MVP T.J. Jones.

But he always worked in tandem with the imposing Niklas. Now, Koyack is at the top of the tight end food chain.

"It's something I'm going to have to step up to the plate and do, but I feel that it's a task I can take on," Koyack said. "(2014) is going to be a longer season (because he's) not necessarily in the two tight end role. I'm going to have to be more consistent."

Kelly offered Koyack's name as a player that could serve as the chief in-line blocker among the team's tight ends, a far cry from last September when the Irish head man verbally eviscerated the Oil City, PA product for shoddy blocking efforts in back-to-back quarters against Purdue and Michigan State.

"I fully expect Ben Koyack to be able to do the job for us, first and foremost," said Kelly at spring's outset. "And then we get young at the position after that.

Koyack enjoyed a stellar second half of 2013

"Probably the last six games of the (2013) season, (Koyack) really was an effective blocker for us. I think he can be more than that. I think he can be a very good blocker for us. (Sophomore) Durham Smythe will be involved in there. If we have to use an offensive lineman that we put another jersey on, we certainly could do that, too, because we have some depth on the offensive line."

Koyack, Smythe, and from a pass-catching standpoint, Heuerman carry the torch for Tight End U entering 2014. Koyack will likely find himself back in a role with which he's quite familiar from his prep days: detached as a receiver, ready to win a one-on-one matchup.

"I'm not sure what we'll end up doing (offensively) but if they put me out there I'll be comfortable doing that, just as comfortable if they put me inline. In high school I definitely lined up a lot, and I've done that some here too."

Asked if being detached would be an easier adjustment than his move to the line upon arrival at Notre Dame in 2011, Koyack offered, "I might agree, but one of the first things we worked on coming here was being able to do everything out of attached, so it's kind of become second nature."

Always comfortable catching and now blocking, Koyack was fully aware his role as the No. 2 tight end in 2012 was as important as the leading man Niklas.

"Our two tight end package, the No. 2 guy does get really involved," he explained. "To me it didn't matter if I was catching the ball or blocking because at the end of the day, if I'm on the field I have an important job to do. That's how I looked at it, if I'm executing my job, maybe (running back) Tarean (Folston) is sprinting 50 yards down the field. As long as we get in the end zone, it's good." Top Stories