Notre Dame has a lot of key pieces to replace on offense heading into the 2013 season, none bigger than Tyler Eifert. The consensus All-American and most prolific tight-end in Notre Dame history is headed to the NFL, leaving a gaping hole in the Irish offense. Eifert lead the Irish in receiving yards and was tied for the team lead in receptions and touchdown receptions last season while often facing double and triple teams in coverage. He was also invaluable to the development of Everett Golson as the Irish quarterback always knew he had a matchup advantage when Eifert was on the field. With Eifert gone the Irish are losing their leading receiver from last season and Golson’s security blanket who could create space for other playmakers, now it’s up to a group of talented but largely inexperienced tight-ends to replace the best in Notre Dame history.
The odds-on favorite to replace Eifert as the Irish’s number one tight-end this fall is last season’s backup Troy Niklas. Niklas, a converted linebacker spent most of last season learning the skills necessary to excel at the tight-end position while playing in all 13 games and totalling five receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown. The California native is a physical specimen, coming in at 6’7’’ and weighing 259 pounds, making him a nightmare for any defender. After spending a season as Eifert’s understudy, Niklas is ready to shine as he has all the physical and mental tools to continue the legacy of great tight-ends at Notre Dame.
Another player competing for playing time at tight-end will be the much maligned Ben Koyack. Koyack came to Notre Dame as a highly touted recruit who was one of the top tight-ends in the 2011 class; however, since then its been a bumpy ride for the junior. Koyack has been plagued by monumental struggles in the blocking department and inconsistency with his hands. This season will define Koyack’s career at Notre Dame, with depth at the position if he continues to struggle he will fall on the depth chart, but if he lives up to his potential there is a great possibility for him to become a crucial member of the Irish offense.
With the Irish tight-end corps lacking experience, senior Alex Welch can provide leadership. Welch missed all of last season with an ACL injury but is recovered and ready to get back on the field in the upcoming season. Despite being with the program since 2010, Welch has only seen action in 10 games as he was redshirted in his freshman season and injured all of last season. The Ohio native and Elder High School alumnus is viewed as a blocking specialist but does have good hands and the ability to contribute to the Irish offense.
The Irish also have an injection of youth at the position as incoming freshman Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe look to compete for playing time. Heuerman is already on campus as an early-enrollee, giving him an opportunity to learn the playbook and practice with the team in an effort to get on the field during his freshman season. Heuerman has great physical skills and with the head start he gets from enrolling early could factor into the equation on offense this season, primarily in triple tight-end sets along the goal line. Smythe, a Texas native, also possesses great physical tools and will push for some playing time but likely will find himself on special teams.
A potential wildcard in the situation is former Irish basketball player Joey Brooks. Brooks has great athleticism and height at 6’6’’ but is new to football at a high level. With the depth at the position it is unlikely Brooks can overcome his lack of experience to play a key role this season, but his physical skill that he can transfer for basketball will make him an intriguing player to watch in practice leading up to the season.