For the third off-season since the conclusion of the 2005 campaign, the Notre Dame football program lost a record-threatening, first or second round tight end to the NFL Draft. Despite that talent drain, Irish fans still wait for the first inclination of decline at the position as a new season approaches.
As outlined in our Tight End U columns of the past, the Notre Dame program breeds NFL tight ends with a nearly continuous run of professional players dating back to the early 70s (for a full review of the column(s), click here.
Following the 2005 season, Anthony Fasano – a senior with one year of eligibility remaining – opted for the NFL Draft and was rewarded with a second round selection. His replacement, John Carlson, took the reigns from ’06 through ’07, bettered Fasano in every (statistical) category, and was likewise chosen in the second round of his draft year, 2008.
Freshman Kyle Rudolph took over for Carlson, and due to injury, transfer, and suspension, toiled as the only scholarship tight end for the bulk of his true freshman season. Rudolph elected to forgo his senior season next fall and ranks as the No. 1 tight end prospect for the 2011 draft – a first or second round selection nearly assured.
Exit Rudolph, enter junior Tyler Eifert and a trio of talented backups (not to mention a top tier recruit joining over the summer) and the 2011 Notre Dame tight end unit is as good or better (more developed) than the seemingly invincible group from last fall.
They’re deep; they’re experienced, they’re talented, strong, and fast. And most important, they have Tyler Eifert.
His numbers last year, his first as a competitor, were similar to that of his top-ranked predecessor over the same span of games:
- Kyle Rudolph (Games 1-6): 28 receptions, 327 yards, 3 TD
- Tyler Eifert (Games 7-12): 22 receptions, 304 yards, 2 TD (added 4 receptions for 31 yards in the Sun Bowl)
In fairness to Rudolph, he played at less than full strength for his final three contests (if not all six, considering he first injured his hamstring in July). In fairness to Eifert and for the sake of comparison, Notre Dame threw 60 more passes over the first six contests than they did the final sextet to conclude the regular season.
Regardless of 2010 performance, the position is in great hands entering 2011.
“It’s really exciting watching Eifert right now,” said offensive coordinator Charley Molnar following the team’s opening practice of the spring. “He looks like an All-American-in-the-making, he really does. He plays with great confidence, he plays with great speed, and he has great ball skills.
“(Tight ends) Coach Denbrock’s job is to bring him up another level as a blocker,” Molnar continued. “He’s had a great off-season in the weight room so his strength is going to be really improved; he’ll have more confidence; he’ll have better fundamentals and more power.
“He’s just such a confident player out there. He loves to play and always has a smile on his face. We love the guy.”
Depth is the key
It’s relevant to note Molnar does not regularly wax poetic regarding those in his charge. But as has become the custom at the position in South Bend, Eifert’s not a one-man gang.
“(Mike) Ragone has started, he’s helped this football program win games for the last three seasons,” Molnar noted of the 5th-year senior. “And he’s just so competitive. He just doesn’t sit there and say ‘It’s Tyler Eifert’s job.’ Every day he’s going out there trying to snatch that job away from Tyler.”
Also working for a role is talented redshirt-freshman Alex Welch, a player deemed ready but unnecessary for live action last fall by head coach Brian Kelly.
“Alex Welch, his skill set is not far off,” said Molnar of the untested Ohioan. “I wouldn’t be real fired up to play him this weekend if we had a game, but I think at the end of spring he’ll be right in the thick of things.”
Jake Golic, of whom Molnar offered “is a better player than where he left off” rounds out the quartet – one that becomes a quintet over the summer when heralded Ben Koyack joins the ranks (barring injury in the ranks, expect Koyack to receive the Alex Welch treatment as a freshman, at least unless he shows otherworldly skills in August camp).
The numbers crunch at the position – and also thanks the now-unknown that is the receiving corps – has likely opened the door for two, and yes, three tight end sets.
“I think we’ll have to,” offered head coach Brian Kelly of the likelihood of multiple, simultaneous tight ends in the 2011 offense. “For instance on Saturday (a practice open to the media), you’ll see the utilization of three tight ends. I feel like with Ragone, and Welch, and Golic – and Golic has made great improvement – you’re going to see three tight ends on the field,” he continued.
“Essentially what we’ll do – if (the defense) is going to defend those three tight ends in some configuration, then we’ll get one-on-one with (slot receiver) Theo Riddick. If you want to double, we’re going to do some things.”
Though rarely in tandem or trio (Eifert caught one pass with Rudolph in the lineup last year), Irish tight ends accounted for the most receptions (58) for more yards (712) for more touchdowns (5) than in any season since 2006 (John Carlson and Marcus Freeman led the way to a 56-732-6 statistical finish). Each 2011 total ranked as the first-or-second highest mark of the decade
Following in the recent footsteps of Fasano, Carlson, and Rudolph, Eifert will likely earn the lion’s share of gaudy numbers for the unit next fall.
“He’s so smart, anything we envision, Eifert can do,” Molnar offered. “We lined him up in new spots today, just simple nuances, nothing that you might catch, but we certainly noted (that) he’s never lined up there before.
“And that’ll always be the case (movement) because a guy like him is always going to command some sort of extra coverage. We want to make it as difficult on the defense as possible, and if we can get him in a matchup (vs. a 240 pound linebacker) we’ll take advantage of it.”
The beat goes on at Tight End U.