Best of the Best: Irish Tight Ends

The first edition in our week-long series ranking the best position groups of the five-season Brian Kelly era in South Bend.

#1 – Tight Ends
It’s not the combined 251 receptions and 25 total touchdowns scored that standout (50 catches/5 TD per year if you’re scoring at home), but rather, the well-rounded efforts coupled with game- and season-changing big plays continually made by unit that pushes it to the front of the list.

Plus you can’t beat the brand names noted below:

The Elite: Tyler Eifert – The program’s best at the position since Ken MacAfee dominated the Dan Devine era in South Bend, Eifert ranks among the five best overall players of the Kelly era – but that’s a story for another week.

Fun Fact: Eifert elicited six pass interference penalties in 2012. The 2012 wide receivers as a unit drew…zero.

Standouts/Difference Makers: Troy Niklas, Kyle Rudolph – We’re only ranking Rudolph on his Kelly-era exploits, and that amounts to a half-season playing through, then succumbing to, a serious hamstring injury suffered the summer before Kelly’s initial season of 2010.

Niklas was the better of the two considering the circumstances and he might have joined Eifert in the ranks of the elite had he stayed for his senior season of 2014.

Quality Starter: Ben Koyack – An invaluable piece of the 2014 Irish offense but the drop-off from Eifert/Niklas/Rudolph to Koyack was stark nonetheless. Koyack put forth a strong second half in 2013 as well, contributing three clutch touchdowns catches.

Aided the Cause: Mike Ragone – An underrated cog in the 2010 team that escaped its downward sprial with a 4-0 finish, Ragone served as a quality in-line blocker, a move tight end that lead the way for runners Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes after Kelly’s force-fed spread failed to take hold over the first two months of Season One.

Couldn’t Carve A Niche: Alex Welch – Was on the verge of Tight End No. 2 status (behind Eifert) in August 2012 but a torn ACL ended his season and hopes for serious playing time in South Bend. Passed over by Niklas and Koyack in the spring of 2013 and made little impact as a result before transferring to Miami (Ohio) for his fifth season last fall.

On Deck for 2015: Durham Smythe, Tyler Luatua
Finding a Foothold this Fall? Nic Weishar, Chase Hounshell and Mike Heuerman
On the Horizon: Aliz’e Jones

Why They’re No. 1: No single-season effort by the unit has failed to support the overall efforts of Kelly’s offense, with the first four editions -- 2010-2013 -- offering outstanding performances by the position as a whole:

-- In 2010, Rudolph and Eifert combined for 55 catches and five scores, with Rudolph playing the majority of snaps in the first half of the season and Eifert taking over for his injured mentor thereafter.

-- In 2011, Eifert ranked as one of the three best players on the team, and he repeated that feat in 2012. No Kelly-era player has made more crunch-time catches in bigger moments than Eifert.

-- The 2013 Niklas/Koyack tandem combined for the most touchdowns at the position, eight, since the late 1970s. Niklas emerged as a standout blocker while Koyack improved greatly to that end.

-- Had Koyack last fall mirrored the major leap forward of a decade’s worth of his predecessors, rather than merely being “solid” as a senior, the tight ends would rank as an A+ position group under Kelly & Co. in South Bend.

Note: The No. 2 ranked position group of the Kelly era will be posted later today.


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