The 12th Men?

Backup tight ends Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack won't supplant All-America Tyler Eifert in the Irish starting lineup this fall. But one of them might join him…

Blessed with good health, and regardless of the team's quarterback play in 2012, senior Tyler Eifert will exit South Bend upon graduation with every meaningful tight end receiving record in program history.

In a bit of old meets new football strategy, Eifert will likely be joined by one of his understudies, if not as an announced starter, in the weekly offensive rotation.

"There's a lot of things you can do with tight ends," said offensive coordinator Chuck Martin. "Coach Kelly's system, its so much more vast than anyone's seen in two years. He has ways of moving guys around.

"We can put in a lot of tight ends. I don't think in those terms," continued Martin of the perception of starters and reserves. "When I learned offense from coach Kelly the first time, I realized personnel is for fans and media. If Eifert is flexed out is he a Y or a Z? I don't care, call him whatever you want, he's playing there.

"We have a combination of good receivers and good tight ends. Get them all out there and mix them up. What's Theo (Riddick)? You tell me? Tailback, slot? He can do both."

Riddick is another "12th-man candidate" for an offense with one star but a greater wealth of developed and developing talent than either of Kelly's first two seasons at the helm.

"It was great for my confidence, I actually have an idea of what I'm doing as opposed to last year where on the field, a split-second before (the snap) I was still wondering" said Koyack. "Not that its ever easy, but having a (season of action) makes the transition much easier. We have great chemistry as a unit and we're all in this to get to that game. Even the freshmen are clicking."

Koyack, a fluid runner at 6'5" 255, is closer to Eifert in his young skill set than is the monstrous Niklas (6'7" 260).

The converted linebacker dubbed "Hercules" by Manti Te'o last year put his Herculean strength on display during the first week of August camp, albeit vs. a defenseless foe:

"I was just ready to get on the field and kind of let loose on the blocking dummy," said Niklas. "I don't know. I didn't intend to flip it (over) the first time. But then when I found I could I was like, ‘Might as well do it again.'"

Kelly has reiterated that either Koyack or Niklas' main role will be to handle in-line blocking duties, largely to benefit the Irish running game. Niklas would seem to have a leg up for those duties. "It was all technique with him," said Kelly of Niklas' ongoing transition. "Physically, he can lift a car up. It's not an issue. He's strong physically, it was technique and leverage and all the things that go along with being at the tight end position. He's made great strides."

The first week of August camp ended the season for another tight end, junior Alex Welch. Welch was purportedly a shade ahead of both Koyack and Niklas entering training camp, his extra year in the program and combination of strong hands and improved blocking acumen notable during the spring.

"Losing Alex was difficult, there's a lot of anxiety when you lose a really good player that's shown himself well, but to see those other tight ends really have a couple good days puts your eyes and focus somewhere else," said Kelly.

Dual Threats?

Niklas is the accepted road-grader in the run game; Koyack the logical backup should Eifert go down or as another target for (fill-in-your-quarterback) over a long season.

Both are working to make sure their perceived weaknesses morph into strengths.

"I've come a long way but I still have a long way to go. There's a lot I have to work on whether its my footwork or just getting my head on the right side," said Koyack. "But right now I'm trying to be physical and do what the coaches need. Troy's pretty strong and built for that, but we all need to get our technique down."

Niklas credits his youth for an innate skill that allows him to stress the defense with more than his shoulder pads and helmet.

"I've played basketball and baseball my whole life," he said. "I've always been able to catch the ball. I need to work on my routes, I'd say."

A decade of frustrated Irish fans have nonetheless enjoyed an uninterrupted string of excellence from the tight end position. Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph, and Eifert continued to push the envelope, threatening program records and forging a place in team lore with dominant efforts vs. the best their schedules had to offer.

Koyack (1 catch) and Niklas (16 special teams tackles last year), aren't in that ball park yet. But the 2012 season is the first step toward that end, and both will receive ample opportunity to prove worth.

"The beauty of where coach is taking this is its open competition for the football, not for starting jobs" said Martin. "If they realize we can get them the ball anytime anywhere we want on the field, they're not battling for tailback or backup tight end or wide receiver, they're battling for the football.

"I want everyone to fight for more touches."

Chances are, that wish will be granted.

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