- Irish head coach Charlie Weis on freshman media day
On August 7, before Notre Dame's incoming freshmen class began battling with the team's established veterans in what amounts to two separate month-long tryouts for 2009 playing time, the name Tyler Eifert was not generally included in pre-season playing time speculation sessions. That's apparently changed for the former Fort Wayne (Bishop Dwenger) star, as Eifert, along with a handful of other freshmen phenoms, has made an early push for playing time as August camp ends and preparation for live bullets begins.
"He's had a nice camp," observed Weis when asked about Eifert's surprising progress. "We always have that semantics conversation about playing or not playing freshmen – he's making it tough for us to want to ‘not play him.'
"He's making it tough. He's picking it up mentally and physically he's handled the roles of being a tight end – the blocking, and that's been a very pleasant surprise for us…"
Which begs the question? When was the last time Notre Dame boasted a depth chart with four tight ends that merited game day consideration…and how were they used?
A contributing fourth tight end is a rarity in the program. Logic dictates a solid, reliable third tight end mitigates the need for a fourth player at the position on game day, especially if the player is an underclassman who could seek a fifth year after being withheld from game action as a freshman.
- The 1988 national champions employed three tight ends: freshman Derek Brown (12 games, 6 starts, 3 touchdowns), senior Frank Jacobs (9 games, 6 starts and a touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl), and senior Rod West (12 games played).
- In 1991 Lou Holtz featured senior Derek Brown, junior Irv Smith, and sophomore Oscar McBride for a dominant rushing attack. Brown and Smith were first round NFL Draft picks in 1992 and 1993 respectively.
- In 2005, Marcus Freeman found a role as the team's third tight end behind Anthony Fasano and John Carlson but didn't catch a pass behind the two future NFL fantasy sleepers (Freeman did earn one start in a three-tight end starting lineup to open the Weis era at Pittsburgh).
- The program's greatest reliance on the tight end in recent decades likely occurred in 2003 when Tyrone Willingham employed Anthony Fasano (11 games, 3 starts, 18 catches and two touchdowns), Jared Clark (12 games and 2 starts with a decade-best 15 receptions as a backup tight end), Billy Palmer (12 games and 9 starts and a catch), and Marcus Freeman (11 games, no receptions) as tight ends throughout the course of the season. Future tight end and 2005 NFL Draft pick Jerome Collins played extensively at linebacker in the 2003 season.
As mentioned in Mike Ragone's Pre-Camp Assessment, in his four seasons at the helm, the highest reception total for a backup (second string) tight end in Charlie Weis' offense is a surprisingly low, nine (and as an astute reader pointed out, five of Marcus Freeman's nine receptions that season occurred in a season-ending start at USC).
Irish star turned Seattle Seahawks record-setter John Carlson totaled seven receptions behind Anthony Fasano in 2005; Will Yeatman caught six as Carlson's understudy in 2007; and Yeatman posted two catches (for six yards) in three games prior to his suspension last September.
Which brings us back to freshman tight end Tyler Eifert – a player who's confident he can carry out the requirements of his position as he learns from his veteran teammates.
"I don't know if my technique's quite there (yet)," answered Eifert when asked specifically about his purported blocking acumen. "It's definitely something I'm still working on. Coach Parmalee and all the tight ends work on (blocking) every day. It seems repetitive but its stuff we need to learn and I'm definitely getting better at it.
"(At this point) I'm definitely better at route-running and catching balls, as that's what I did my whole high school career. But I'm working on (blocking) and getting better."
Eifert also realizes the key to any freshman's playing time resides in his knowledge of the scheme and his role on each play.
"Knowing the plays, the playbook, and knowing they (the coaching staff) could put me in there at any of the tight end positions and I'll be able to run the play," said Eifert of what attribute best suits him at this point in his career.
"Using fundamentals for my blocking and using what I know for getting open."
While Eifert remains humble and his head coach Weis effusive in his pre-season praise, Notre Dame tight end coach Bernie Parmalee was equally optimistic regarding the progress of his young tight end.
"Anytime you have a lot of guys that can do multiple things – we feel like that package (of skills) will help us over the season…"
"Coming in as a freshman you don't know what to expect (from him), but when guys get out there and they compete – you realize he's (Eifert) a little more above the curve than you thought he would be – then it makes it hard (as a coach) and you really have to evaluate your situation and see when the season starts how you can work him in.
"He definitely will get stronger in the weight room from year one to year two; but he has great hands; he has good body control; he's a good route runner; and on top of that he has great size – so when you have an athletic guy like that – another athletic guy – you sit back and even though you realized he was good, and that's why you recruited him, you just have to let the competition play out (with a freshmen now in the mix).
"He's a talent," Parmalee continued. "He has great size. Even when he came to our one-day camp you could see his athleticism and when you have a guy that size that can move like that and have great hands that's just another weapon."
Regardless of his role, Eifert will contribute to the team this season.
"If I get on the field then great; I'll do all I can to help the team win. If I don't play then I'm going to do what I can on the practice field to get the guys ready to play."
Recent history indicates Eifert's first impression will be made as a member of the Irish special teams rather than as a fourth option from scrimmage. Then again, a quartet of talented tight ends is unchartered territory for a coaching staff that has already produced two NFL standouts.
A Year Away...ExceptAny contribution from a freshman as a team's fifth tight end from scrimmage is highly unlikely. But freshman Jake Golic has three qualities that could help him find his way on the field this season: aggressiveness, adequate speed, and a desire to hit the man in front of him
"I feel like I love to hit," said Golic on freshman media day. "Every opportunity I get to hit I take full advantage of it so the act of getting in the game and being able to hit is something I think I can do very well."
Golic's desire for contact, his frame, and agility as a tight end afforded an obvious follow-up question.
"Yes, I've been blessed with the opportunity to be involved in a few special teams positions," offered Golic when I asked if his skill set might be utilized on any of the Irish special teams this season. "So I'm trying to take advantage of those (running, hitting, aggressiveness) and see if I can get on the bus."
Bobby Burger - Who's the New Guy?Though the Nevada depth chart won't be revealed until this evening (August 24), there's been no news from Irish camp that suggests the initial slotting of Kyle Rudolph; Mike Ragone; Bobby Burger; Tyler Eifert (or) Jake Golic has changed. And a common theme has emerged when Irish tight ends and coaches are asked about a former defensive end who's found his way onto the the tight end depth chart via Dayton:
"Burger's done an outstanding job," said Parmalee. "He's a physical guy; it's (football) important to him; and he comes to work every day. So he's been doing a great job since he's been here."
"He works really hard," said Mike Ragone of Burger. "He has a motor like no other and a passion for the game like no other."
"Burger is 100 percent, 100 miles an hour on every play," said Eifert of the Dayton Flyers transfer. "A real passion for the game, even now in camp when everyone's tired and no one wants to be there; he just loves the game."