Our summer preview series (95 consecutive days of Irish articles leading up to the outset of August camp) begins on May 1. Until then, we'll take a look back and the best of the best of the four season Brian Kelly era in South Bend.We'll even take time to examine the flip side of that equation. Next in the series: Kelly's five best single-season tight end performances:
#1 -- Tyler Eifert 2012You name it, Eifert did it. Need an extra blocker for an entire contest at Michigan State? Eifert was the man. Need the same one week later vs. Michigan, Eifert remained in-line then as well -- that is until the Irish needed a late third-down conversion, one the Irish senior reeled in over Michigan's best cover corner to help seal the victory. After being used to protect Irish quarterbacks early, Eifert split out wide midway through the season and through its conclusion, catching 39 passes over the last eight contests for nearly 500 yards and three scores. Eifert was at his best when Notre Dame needed him most: -- Four receptions, four first downs, 98 yards, and a drawn pass interference against Purdue in a 20-17 Irish victory..
-- A third and long, leaping touchdown grab over two defenders to tie Stanford early in the fourth quarter…
-- A touchdown and game-high 73 yards in a 17-14 win over Brigham Young..
-- A pass interference drawn against Pittsburgh that helped set up a fourth quarter touchdown...
-- A third down goal line reception to set up an early fourth quarter score at Oklahoma the gave the Irish a 20-13 lead…
-- Four receptions and four first downs at USC… How much of a focal point was Eifert to Notre Dame's passing attack? Over the 13-game season, no Irish wide receiver drew a pass interference penalty. Eifert alone drew six. First-team All-America honors and the Mackey Award as the nation's outstanding tight end, plus a berth in the BCS Championship game were the reward for his efforts.
Eifert set the modern standard for tight ends at Notre Dame
#2 -- Tyler Eifert 2011Eifert's best statistical season was as a junior when the Mackey Award runner-up posted 63 receptions (a program record for tight ends) for 803 yards (ditto) and five touchdowns (one short). Eifert was chief among the reasons Notre Dame won at Pittsburgh (8 receptions, 75 yards, go-ahead touchdown and two-point conversion), a game in which he dominated the fourth quarter, and he was the best Irish offensive player in end-season losses at Stanford (4-79) and Florida State (6-90, repeated third-down conversions downfield). Aside from a Michigan State game in which he was asked to block the Spartans vicious front (2 receptions, 25 yards), Eifert had no sub par outings. In Notre Dame's comical season opening loss to South Florida, Eifert corralled six passes for 93 yards and set up the team's first touchdown. (He also uncharacteristically dropped a pass during the offense's first half collapse.) Eifert was likely the best tight end in the nation in 2011 but he was not yet a marked man as he was as a senior in 2012. Michael Floyd, Jonas Gray, and Cierre Wood combined to take the pressure off of Notre Dame's future Mackey Award winner in 2011.
#3 -- Troy Niklas 2013What might have been… As a true junior and in his second season at tight end, the 6'7" 270-pound Niklas shined, tying Eifert with five touchdowns to mark the second highest total in program history at the position while producing 498 yards on 32 receptions. Niklas starred vs. rival Michigan (6 receptions, 76 yards, 1 TD), recorded another score on two receptions/43 yards vs. Oklahoma; helped take down Arizona State with another touchdown among his three receptions and 49 yards; then helped defeat chief rival USC, catching a game-best four passes for 58 yards and another score. As a run blocker, Niklas emerged from promising (2011) to stout, and it was the latter -- combined with unique athleticism and coordination -- that tempted Niklas to enter the NFL Draft as a third-year player. He left, and Notre Dame's offense will have trouble filling that void as a result. In this case, a brilliant position switch by his head coach might have cost Notre Dame a starting senior player for 2014, as Niklas would doubtless be a starting defensive end for the 4-3 front in Brian VanGorder's defense.
#4 -- Kyle Rudolph 2010 and #5 Tyler Eifert 2010Why Rudolph's half season over Eifert's? Their numbers were similar: --Eifert 27 receptions, 352 yards, 2 touchdowns (all but one catch and 18 yards in the final 7 games) --Rudolph 28 receptions, 328 yards, 3 touchdowns (all during the first six games) Eifert's seven starts followed Rudolph's first six prior to injury and he was arguably the more consistent player, totaling at least four receptions in five of seven starts. But Rudolph produced what should have been a game-winning, seminal moment in the Notre Dame/Michigan series, a 95-yard go-ahead touchdown catch and run in a game given away late by the Irish defense. When relatively healthy -- and in this case "relatively" includes playing with a hamstring injury that nagged him since mid-July -- Rudolph was on a record-setting pace, catching 21 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns in Notre Dame's first three games vs. Big 10 foes Purdue, Michigan, and Michigan State.
Rudolph has emerged as an outstanding pro Rudolph's hamstring tore from the bone three games later (a contest in which he played through the strain with five receptions) in a win over Pittsburgh, and the Tyler Eifert era began. Eifert concluded his standout half-regular season with a forgotten gem: it was the redshirt freshman tight end that recovered a Cierre Wood fumble -- more than 30 yards downfield -- on Notre Dame's game-winning drive to beat USC and end the Trojans eight-season reign over the Irish. The pair combined for 55 receptions, 680 yards, and five scores in 2010 and will historically go down as (easily) the best tight end tandem in the history of the program, though they weren't used as such often in Notre Dame's scattered (maybe "rudderless" is the better team) spread offense.
Honorable Mention-- Troy Niklas 2012: Served as the in-line blocking compliment to the Mackey-winning Eifert, finishing with five receptions, 75 yards, a touchdown, and a crucial pass interference drawn to help beat Purdue in Game Two (the only flag drawn by an Irish pass-catcher not named Eifert in 2012). Not bad for a sophomore that played linebacker/pass rusher as a true freshman one season prior. Niklas struggled mightily vs. Stanford but was an otherwise solid complimentary player throughout the undefeated regular season, peaking as a blocker in space late during wins over Boston College and USC.
Koyack excelled over a five-week span last fall -- Ben Koyack 2013: It was a tale of two seasons for Koyack as the junior struggled mightily in Games 1-4 before surging thereafter, recording three touchdowns, 171 yards, and 10 receptions in the final nine contests. Koyack not only failed to catch a pass in the season's four games, he wasn't targeted for one. His emergence thereafter is a testament to hard work and using one strong outing (blocking vs. Oklahoma in defeat) as a springboard for better things ahead. Next in our Best of the Best series: The Kelly era quarterbacks.