-- Irish head coach Brian Kelly regarding 6'6" 270-pound junior tight end Troy Niklas
Productive tight ends are a given at Notre Dame, both before the Brian Kelly era and at its apex during. No school has produced more NFL talent over the last decade -- or the last four decades. No fan base has regularly enjoyed the "Next Man In" each season at any position as much as Irish fans and their highly touted tight ends.
But when one of the three best in program history moves on to the professional ranks, a drop-off is expected. And in terms of production, likely unavoidable.
(Offered the aforementioned Niklas of Eifert's whopping 96 pass targets last fall: "I can say, unequivocally, we won't get that many. Combined.")
But quality play at the position is still the baseline expectation, and for Notre Dame 2013, it will come from a trio of upperclassmen at the position.
"We're seeing an improvement in this big, young man at the tight end position every day and it's pretty exciting," said Kelly of Niklas. "And I will say, I'm really pleased with Ben (Koyack) and Alex (Welch) too. They both can be really important components of our offense."
Sans the injured Welch, they were last fall, too, with Niklas and/or Koyack joining Eifert on nine of Notre Dame's first 11 touchdowns scored. On more than half of the team's first 16 touchdowns (opening five games prior to the Bye), all three of the Eifert/Niklas/Koyack triumvirate were on the field simultaneously.
Notre Dame's "12 package" (two tight ends) should again be a key component in what will be a multiple-look offensive attack in 2013.
"We try to work as tight ends as a group so they want to use all of us," said Welch, now fully recovered from an August 2012 ACL tear. "Just help the team. They ask us to do a lot. We like to block, catch the ball, do everything in this offense. We're ready for it.
"It's all about the matchups on linebackers and safeties. If the coaches want three tight ends out there, we're ready for that too."
Welch is ready for it after an off-season of grueling work in an effort to be full speed in August.
"Oh it was very important because now I don't have to go through it in camp," said Welch of his accelerated efforts that put him in full pads during spring ball, just seven months after surgery. "I've been able (in August) to go play football. When you're thinking about your knee you're not paying attention to coverages and things you have to be ready for. It was a lot of hard work. Treatment every day and rehab. Always looking forward."
Assumed AscentThe in-line compliment to Eifert's perimeter prowess last season was position neophyte Troy Niklas. One season removed from linebacker duties, Niklas started six games at tight end, played more snaps than all but four skill position competitors, and was the only Notre Dame player not named Tyler Eifert to draw a pass interference penalty from an opponent last fall.
He's the assumed starter among a trio of given contributors.
"The other day in the red zone, he used his body and his size and he complimented it with his pass-catching," said Kelly of Niklas' skill set catching up to his stature. "He didn't have that feel last year. He was a big-bodied guy running around there. He's getting there, he's learning, he's understanding those things, and the same thing in the run game."
At 270 and overtly physical, it's assumed Niklas will improve immensely as a blocker after an uneven effort last fall. He's worked tirelessly on that aspect of his game, ball skills coming a bit more naturally after a youth spent playing basketball.
"I've always felt comfortable catching the ball and being detached, everything like that," said Niklas. "But Tyler was just such a dynamic route runner, he could catch balls almost every time you throw them to him."
"I have to work on it. When (the ball) is in the air and a defender is on you. Pushing off, getting free, stuff like that. Improvement is needed everywhere. I feel so much more comfortable with pass blocking and run blocking, with the technique. That's the big thing. I worked really hard over the summer with that. I feel now in practice so much more comfortable."
Niklas noted a specific aspect of his pass-blocking last year was poor balance.
"One of the hard things is just getting a good base. I just never felt last year like I could get a good base or solid position with my legs. Maybe it was the weight room, just working on it every day but I really feel that when I set back, even if its quick, that I can stop on a dime and have a good base and deliver a solid punch without being off balance."
Moved from tight end to guard his senior season at Servite High School (Anaheim, Calif.) Niklas was asked if that experience in the trenches in any way prepared him for battles at the college level.
"Not really, because I was pass-blocking 5'8" 200 pound kids."
Pass-Catchers in Waiting?Five recruiting stars, four career receptions, two seasons of eligibility burned…the No. 1 ranked tight end of the 2011 class has yet to broach his potential as a player, but Ben Koyack's time tutoring under the nation's best has him well-prepared to take a massive step forward in year three.
"He taught us not to take a play off. He was a good role model," said Koyack of Eifert. "It's my third year now, and (camp) is much more of a routine, figuring out what's right, what type of food to eat, when to wake up. It's not as much of a grind because of it, it's just maintaining that consistency. I'm pretty comfortable with the offense now I'm a little bit past having to think about everything."
Koyack was lauded by his head coach as one of the most improved offensive players last spring. His goal then, in the summer months that followed, and today through the end of his next two years in South Bend: become a better blocker, especially in space.
"It's something I've been working on, the work is never done, not just blocking, but catching, run-blocking, pass-blocking, and running my routes," Koyack said. "I've been working my butt off to improve. Its football, its a physical game, if you're out there you have to be physical. There were some roles I didn't necessarily do before (in high school), but right now I'm just embracing wherever coach puts me on the field."
Asked if he prefers to be detached, split wide, in motion, or as a traditional in-line tight end, Koyack offered, "Wherever they want to put me. (The coaches) have been doing this since before I was born, so whatever they want me to do, that's what I'm here to do."
Combined, Niklas, Koyack, and Welch have collected just 10 college receptions, 127 yards, and a lone touchdown (Niklas at Boston College last year).
The 2013 season will offer ample opportunity, and the more well-rounded the trio proves to be, the more chances each will see in the passing game.
"We have to do everything they ask," said Welch. "Block, catch balls, do everything a tight end is supposed to do to help out. It's about being physical, that's the biggest thing for all three of us every down. I love to play physical," he added. "Go hit people and run over people when you catch the ball."
A nearly unbroken four-decade streak of predecessors agree wholeheartedly.
Note: For a historical breakdown on Notre Dame's role as "Tight End U" click here.