2014 Outlook: Tight Ends
The tight end pairing of Niklas and Koyack produced as many single-season touchdowns (8) as any at the program since Monty Stickles led a quartet of tight ends to 10 total scores in 1958. Niklas in December submitted his name for NFL Draft evaluation but with a reported grade of "second to fourth round," the former freshman-year linebacker and pass-rushing nickel package defender is expected to return for his final season to hone his skills as one of the nation's best tight ends for 2014.
Koyack, Scout.com's No. 1 ranked tight end in the 2011 recruiting class, emerged midway through 2013 from the rubble of unfinished blocks and missed opportunities of his previous outings to produce a solid season; standout by backup tight end measure.
Potential 5th-year senior: None. Senior Alex Welch intends to conclude his collegiate career elsewhere in 2014. Welch missed all of 2012 due to a knee injury and was not targeted for a pass in 2013, playing in 13 games, mainly on special teams.
Seniors: Troy Niklas (2014) and Ben Koyack (2014)
Sophomores: Durham Smythe (2017) and Mike Heuerman (2017)
Incoming Freshmen: Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua
Potential 2014 Class Additions: None.
2014: Status Quo?
Statistically, Niklas/Koyack tandem tailed off over the season's final three games. Their contributions though, cannot be measured merely by catches and the yards accrued thereafter.
"He does so much for us," said Kelly of Niklas in particular. "We gave up eight sacks this year, he’s a big reason why. If you look at all the jobs that he does, if he’s not necessarily effective for us during the game catching the ball, he’s extremely effective for us in other areas. I wouldn’t necessarily point it toward him not catching balls and being less effective as I would say we’re just not getting him the ball maybe as much as we should."
The duo will likely improve on its 42-catch, 669-yard receiving effort next season though the 2013 season's combined eight scores will be tough to top. Regardless, the "12 Package" (two tight ends) will be a staple of the offense for at least one more season, regardless of potential changes brought about by the return of quarterback Everett Golson.
Scrimmage playing time for sophomores (redshirt-freshmen) Smythe and Heuerman will be tough to come by next fall assuming Niklas and Koyack remain in good health.
2015 and Beyond
Asked which young player had caught his eye during bowl practice sessions, Kelly immediately offered the name of an unheralded tight end from the Lone Star State.
"Durham Smythe is going to be a really good player, really good player," said Kelly.
"Outstanding ball skills. He's going to continue to get bigger and stronger. I don't want to over-hype him, but he has some really unique ball skills for that position that he plays. As long as he continues to develop and get stronger physically, and he doesn't get into a hybrid position in terms of not getting strong enough to play as an in-line tight end, he's going to be an exceptional player."
Smythe's classmate Mike Heuerman had a leg up as a January 2013 enrollee but after a strong 15-practice spring session, the former No. 10-ranked tight end per Scout.com saw his season truncated by shoulder mid-fall shoulder surgery. Kelly offered of the youngster last April, "I would say that I'm really impressed with Mike. He's up to close to 230 pounds. He's got a burst to him. He's going to be a really good player for us."
Position coach Scott Booker likewise noted the need for strength gain though Heuerman's (on-field) demeanor seems appropriate to carry on the legacy of Tight End U.
"He has a great work ethic to get better and he has a nasty streak about him. I know (strength and conditioning) coach (Paul) Longo has done it with numerous guys before: got them in his weight program to get them stronger, and Mike will do the same thing.'
Incoming: Barring unique special teams acumen, 2014 pledges Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua are headed for redshirt status. It worked for Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, and Tyler Eifert before them. It aided the development of Smythe and Heuerman last fall, and it is advisable for the newcomers as well.
Luatua is a candidate for a first-season look at linebacker as well. The move might be welcomed as the position is one of need among the reserve ranks for 2014.
Final Grade and Projections
2013: B+ … With Tyler Eifert's graduation following 2012, Notre Dame lost its most complete tight end since Hall of Famer Ken MacAfee graduated following the school's 1977 championship season. Much was expected of both Niklas and Koyack in 2013 and they delivered, though Koyack struggled early as a blocker. B+ might be a tick low, but the position is rightly held to a higher standard at Notre Dame.
2014: A … Which program has the second-best pair of returning tight ends for 2014?
2015: B/B+ … Potential abounds, but there's a decent chance that none of the four returning tight ends for 2015 will have caught a collegiate pass entering the season, and almost certain their combined total won't exceed five grabs. Regardless, Heuerman (3) and Smythe (3) and Weishar and Luatua (3/4 apiece) will have a combined 12-14 seasons of eligibility remaining among them entering the '15 season.