Notre Dame football: Irish hoping three tight ends as good as one

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Quantity will have to trump quality this season.

But it's not like the Notre Dame football team has a cupboard that's bare at tight end.

Strength in numbers, right? Defense can't zero in.

It's all about perspective.

Three veterans will try to make up for the gaping void Tyler Eifert left when he decided to get paid for playing the game. There's Troy Niklas, sculpted (6-foot-7, 270 pounds) and raw at the fundamentals of the position; Alex Welch (6-4, 251), who is coming off a year of rehab after a 2012 preseason knee injury and subsequent surgery; and Ben Koyack (6-5, 261), relegated to cameo appearances last season.

While Eifert led the Irish with 50 receptions for 685 yards and four touchdowns, Niklas and Koyack combined for eight catches for 114 yards and one TD.

Like Notre Dame's running back and receiver positions, tight end is a tough one to figure out. That's what makes the Irish offense, in general, so iffy. Last year, everyone knew Eifert would be "the man." It was easy to see Cierre Wood was going to be good on the ground, and Theo Riddick had a chance to excel.

This year's questions aren't so easily answered. At least, not yet.

Even though Niklas and Koyack joined Eifert in a three-tight end alignment to start the BCS National Championship clunker against Alabama, they are hardly seasoned and battle-tested. This year will be about the three of them earning their stripes and finding their place in the Irish attack.

It takes a different breed of athlete to succeed at tight end in Notre Dame's offense: Tight in the formation next to the tackle; flanked out in a pass pattern; a combination in a multi-tight end set. No telling what the assignment's going to be.

In Welch's mind, it doesn't matter.

"Tyler's gone. We had all spring to get used to that," Welch said. "It's up to us to make plays. The tight end has to catch the football and block. Whatever the coaches ask us to do.

"We've gotta block, we've gotta catch, we've gotta be physical. I love to play physical. I love to hit people, and run over people when I catch the ball."

Sounds simple enough. Shouldn't be a problem at all, right?

After Monday's practice, neither Welch nor Koyack were in much of a mood to talk about the challenges ahead. A long, hard training camp can induce aches, pains and clichés.

"We're all excited to contribute as much as possible," Koyack said.

A junior from Oil City, Pa., Koyack came into the Irish program with the reputation as a pass-catcher who didn't necessarily embrace the physical toll necessitated by the position.

"It's football. It's a physical game," Koyack said. "Right now, I'm just embracing wherever I'm put on the field."

Welch had to overcome the fear of returning after a significant injury.

"(The knee's first test) was a little nerve-wracking (last spring)," Welch said. "I hadn't played football for six months. I just sat and watched. You get back out there, it felt awesome. Now, I'm past that point. I'm just playing football like I always did.

"(Not playing last season) was hard, but that's in the past. I learned. I enjoyed it. I was still on the team. I'm looking for the future now.

"The biggest (lesson learned over the years) is to be patient. There are too many ups and downs playing college football. You have to stay patient and level-headed. Maybe you have a bad play one play. You have to be ready for the next play."

"All you can do is control what you can control," said Koyack. "All we can focus on is the next practice."

And hope that three can measure up to one once the season begins.

Alex Welch