Our series of Now or Never players for Notre Dame in 2014 charges forward today by staying on the offensive side of the ball where he look at a third weapon for Everett Golson and the Notre Dame passing attack – senior tight end Ben Koyack.
Notre Dame fans felt they were well on their way to continuing the Fighting Irish’s reputation as Tight End U upon the signing of Ben Koyack of Oil City, PA, and the feeling was warranted. The Pennsylvania prep standout was arguably the best high school football player in the Keystone State and earned accolades accordingly. The Pittsburgh Post Report tabbed Koyack as the #1 player in the State due to his prolific career, hauling in 152 receptions for 2,591 yards. Given his production and frame – listed at 6’5” and running the forty-yard dash in reportedly 4.59 seconds – it was no surprise the nation’s college football powers offered scholarships, such as LSU, Ohio State and USC.
The University of Notre Dame landed an elite high school tight end when Ben Koyack pledged to play his Saturdays in South Bend.
Reason for Optimism
Heading into the 2013 football season, an opportunity finally materialized for then-junior Ben Koyack. The departure of Tyler Eifert in the 1st round of the NFL Draft to the Cincinnati Bengals, alongside fellow tight end Alex Welch struggling to recover from a torn ACL, left an opening for the second tight end position behind eventual 2nd round NFL Draft selection, Troy Niklas. Koyack seized the opportunity and capitalized, earning a spot as a trusted option.
While Koyack’s reception total for the 2013 campaign is not something that would catch the eye, the numbers simply cannot reflect how crucial several of his catches were during the season.
When Notre Dame took on Arizona State in Dallas last fall, head coach Brian Kelly’s squad possessed a 3-2 record and were one loss away from a mid-season tailspin. Matters were made much worse when the Fighting Irish sputtered out of the gate, trailing 6-0 to the Sun Devils as halftime approached, boasting only a missed field goal and two punts as offensive production. The Irish finally wakened from their slumber, however, when Tommy Rees connected with Ben Koyack for a 19-yard touchdown pass, giving Notre Dame the lead and marking Koyack’s first career touchdown for the Fighting Irish.
Koyack’s clutch performances continued to accumulate as his confidence grew. If the former Pennsylvania high school star can carry that momentum into 2014, Notre Dame may have yet another productive season at the tight end position.
Reason for Doubt
As great as it was to see the former blue-chip prospect begin to tap into his vast potential in 2013, numbers cannot be completely argued away. Koyack only managed 10 receptions for 171 yards and three touchdowns on the year, hardly putting together the kind of season that should inspire confidence. To date, as Koyack enters his final season of eligibility, he boasts 14 career receptions.
Though Koyack is now a media and fan favorite to emerge in 2014 – with one NFL Draft analyst even telling the South Bend Tribune that with a strong senior season Koyack could become a high-end third round draft selection – caution should be urged. While Koyack has had to try to emerge from the shadows of a host of NFL talent at the tight end position, he has never truly made a move since being on Notre Dame’s roster, even allowing Troy Niklas, a converted linebacker – though an extremely talented one – to surpass him on the depth chart.
This is the first time in Koyack’s career that he will be leaned on as the experienced, go-to tight end wearing a blue and gold uniform. Making a few clutch catches in 2013 represented a nice first step, but is Koyack truly ready to handle the pressure of being “the guy” at a place known for producing elite, NFL tight ends?
Will Koyack continue his progression and truly emerge at tight end in 2014? In reality, it may not matter. With the return of Everett Golson, the depth and talent at the wide receiver position and a running back trio on the verge of breakout status, Koyack will not be asked to carry the offensive load in the same manner as Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert. What will likely be asked of Koyack is consistency in production while the rest of the offense finally comes into its own, a challenge he should be able to manage.
Ben Koyack will likely never achieve the kind of success his predecessors experienced, but his ability to impact Tight End U is high. Koyack has shown leadership potential, a trait that was on full display when the senior-to-be was present at the Irish Invasion camp offering tips and instruction to the next generation of tight ends. Koyack’s wisdom and leadership will go a long way toward developing Notre Dame’s stable of young and gifted tight ends in sophomores Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman, as well as incoming freshmen Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua.
The opportunity for Ben Koyack to leave his impact in South Bend has never been greater. It’s now or never for Koyack in 2014.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his fiancée. Scott can be reached at email@example.com