Notre Dame football: Koyack makes an impact for Irish

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Trust is an intangible not easily measured.

Except in Ben Koyack’s case.

Koyack’s numbers reveal some very tangible evidence of his rise to significance within the framework of the Notre Dame football team’s offense.

Seven games into this season, Koyack, a 6-foot-5, 261-pound junior tight end, was barely an afterthought. He had caught a 19-yard touchdown pass against Arizona State. Beyond that, the sum of his contributions to the Irish attack was a few well-placed blocks.

Then, the light bulb switched on. Confidence and trust followed production and suddenly he is a vital weapon in the Irish arsenal.

In the last three games, Koyack has caught eight passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. He barely missed a third TD at Pitt when he was ruled to have been down inches shy of the goal line on a 38-yard reception, after having initially been awarded the score.

“As long as we scored a touchdown in the end (TJ Jones ran it in from the 1), it doesn’t matter to me,” said Koyack, who missed out on that chance to score with a lot of friends and relatives from his home in Oil City, Pa., watching at Heinz Field.

“It would have been nice,” Koyack said, admitting the hometown angle

would have been special. “Still, as long as we scored the touchdown, it’s fine with me.”

Besides becoming a weapon himself, Koyack’s recent surge has given a little more teeth to Notre Dame’s double-tight end alignment. Troy Niklas was always the guy to watch in the package. Now there are two options that defenses will have to consider.

Niklas (25 receptions, 390 yards, 5 TDs) has made strides toward being a valuable weapon in the open field. Neither he nor Koyack, though, will give the Notre Dame offense the punch that Tyler Eifert gave last season, but the primary objective of making defenses account for the tight end — and often times two tight ends — will allow other aspects of the attack a little more freedom.

Saturday’s challenge against BYU will be a difficult one. The Cougars’ defense, led by linebackers Uani ‘Unga and Kyle Van Noy, along with safety Daniel Sorensen, is an aggressive, no-holds-barred group that is giving up 377 yards of total offense (155 rushing, 222 passing) a game.

BYU’s base defense has three down linemen, but the variations that stem from the base have the Cougars constantly changing and disguising their looks.

Which could be a concern when Koyack is figuring out someone to block.

“They’re a bunch of really physical guys,” said Koyack. “They play with their hands. They work well. Van Noy is a very talented player.

“We run into (shifting defenses) all the time. That’s nothing new. It just comes down to us executing against the defense.”

“Everyone’s gotta be on their game,” Niklas said of the approach to the BYU defense. “You’ve gotta be locked in on their offense — what to do when they switch their fronts. You have to pay attention.”

Koyack came into this season with four catches for 44 yards in his first two seasons. Hailed as one of the country’s top prep tight ends in 2010, the book on him was: Good hands, blocking could use some work.

“I always knew run-blocking was something I needed to work on,” Koyack said. “I had to work on catching (passes) and running routes. Both ways (blocking and catching), I’ve improved.”

By all accounts, Koyack’s presence in the run game has become more distinctive. His recent pass-catching surge has pushed him closer to being a complete player.

“I’m just trying to take advantage of opportunities,” Koyack said. “There’s been more confidence (shown) in me, so it’s up to me to try to succeed as much as possible.”

Cultivating that confidence and trust has been a gradual process.

“It takes a while (to develop that trust),” Koyack said. “You have to develop chemistry with (the other) guys (on offense). Once it starts, that’s when it really starts to snowball. I’ve been fortunate enough for that to start to happen.”

“It’s difficult,” Niklas said of the trust development. “Every day, you have to be on top of it. Even when you get that trust, you have to be on top of it.”

In other words, there’s no room to allow any doubt.

“It’s always frustrating (waiting for that trust to happen), but you’ve gotta do what the coaches tell you to do,” Koyack said. “Whether that’s blocking, catching passes, it doesn’t matter. You have to go out there and execute.”

“You want to do really well, but you don’t know if the chips will fall your way,” Niklas said. “You just have to have faith that they will.”

Those chips fall much easier when everybody on the offense — especially the two tight ends — is working together in concert.

“We’ve always had a lot of two-tight end sets out there,” Koyack said. “A lot of teams have given us some good looks. Our (he and Niklas) play has given (coaches) more confidence to put us out there in some situations. We like to show them in practice that we can do it, then go out there in a game and execute the way that we’re supposed to.

“When Troy’s scoring a touchdown against Temple, I’m one of the first people to run down there. I was excited for him. As a group, we’re happy for each other, no matter who’s making plays. We’re a unit. We try to make plays for the whole unit, as opposed to ourselves.”

The “all-for-one” attitude is important for an offense to function.

So is a significant amount of trust.

Suddenly Ben Koyack is a vital weapon in the Irish arsenal. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER