Spring Wrap: Irish tight ends

Who took a step forward? Who might have fallen back? Irisheyes.com examines what we know now, what we think we know, and what questions remain.

What We Know

Senior Ben Koyack is the starter and redshirt-freshman Durham Smythe has ascended to a backup role, with classmate Mike Heuerman a tick behind due to season ending surgery last October that delayed his development.

-- Heurman was away from all sports related activities for eight weeks following his October 6 surgery to repair a sports hernia. He reported this spring that he's up 12 pounds since his arrival last year (Heuerman was a 2013 early enrollee) and that includes weight and strength lost following surgery.

At approximately 225 pounds, Heuerman plans to play the 2014 season in the 235- to 240-pound range and increase 10 pounds incrementally each season throughout his Irish career.

-- Smythe earned plaudits from Kelly for his ability to hold up as an in-line blocker, and his hands aren't in question. At nearly 6'5" 245, Smythe can get down the seam and contribute as a pass-catcher this fall.

-- Koyack was lauded for his consistency this spring and has separated himself from the redshirt-freshman pair as the no-doubt starter. He'll rarely leave the field.

"We've got to get the best players on the field," said head coach Brian Kelly in reference to his wide receivers and the three available spots in the Irish lineup. "Because the tight end is going to be on the field as well. I like to keep a tight end on the field."

Koyack improved greatly after a rough start last fall

What we think we know

-- That the legacy of Tight End U is in safe hands with Koyack, the senior.

To play Devil's Advocate: From a glass half-empty perspective, that notion was ludicrous as of mid-September 2013 when Koyack struggled mightily -- and famously, thanks to the sideline reception he received from Kelly after missed blocks against Purdue and Michigan State.

But thereafter, Koyack developed into a reliable blocker and true weapon in the passing game. If your glass is half full, and it probably should be, you see Koyack -- Scout.com's former No. 1 ranked tight end from the 2011 class -- blossoming as he enters his final season.

-- We likewise think Smythe can be a quality No. 2, or at least as good as Koyack in his second season (2012). The caveat: Koyack was the No. 3, not No. 2 tight end in 2012 as the Irish were blessed with Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas on the front lines.

If Smythe can mirror Koyack's 2013 season -- inconsistent start, strong finish -- the position should continue to be one of strength in South Bend.
Smythe (80) will be asked to secure the edge often next fall

Lingering question

Can Heuerman, built like a tall slot receiver more so than a traditional Irish tight end, use his functional strength (he pressed 225 pounds 19 times a year ago) to hold up as a No. 3 tight end this season?

Heuerman's at his best surrounded by grass (his words), but with Notre Dame's depth at receiver and in the slot, he'll have to earn his keep as a true tight end -- which means he might be a year away from consistent playing time.

It would help his career arc, and the position's depth in 2014, if he can at least scratch the surface of his potential next fall.

Spring Star -- Koyack

The wide receiver unit has limitless potential, but Koyack is the only polished, reliable target on the roster, that is unless suspended senior receiver DaVaris Daniels returns with an entirely new level of focus.

As a blocker, Koyack won't' remind anyone of Tyler Eifert (remarkably undervalued), Troy Niklas or Anthony Fasano (dominant), but he's improved greatly in that regard and now takes great pride in that aspect of his craft.

He's a crucial component to the 2014 offense, and a player that must have, far and away, the best season of his four years in South Bend.

Step Back -- Nobody

But it's clear Heuerman took a full step back in 2013 due to injury/surgery.

He's back to his playing weight pre-injury and his weight room numbers have returned as well, but the former metric is that of a freshman, not a sophomore tight end at the program.

Said Kelly of Heuerman following the Blue Gold game, "Mike has gotten better, but he still has got a ways to go consistently as a pass catcher, and he's got to continue to get bigger.  He's certainly made progress but he's still got a ways to go."

He has time -- unless Koyack or Smythe is felled by injury between next August and December.

(Look for a full story on Heuerman when we begin our Summer Coverage in late April.)

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