Notebook: Can Notre Dame's Ben Koyack reverse field?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

For the past few months, Ben Koyack has been trending toward becoming the answer to a trivia question.

And an unflattering one at that.

The former Notre Dame tight end hoped to reverse his sagging NFL Draft momentum at Saturday’s Senior Bowl and the heavily scouted practices leading up to it this past week in Mobile, Ala.

Koyack, projected by most analysts as the top or second-best tight end prospect in the 2015 Draft before a steady but unspectacular 2014 season for the Irish (8-5), entered this week as a projected mid-round pick and at least held serve.

His coaches praised him through the week, and Saturday he hauled in two passes for 19 yards, including a 10-yard TD pass for the North in its 34-13 rout of the South.

“He didn’t have the breakout senior campaign that we thought he would,” analyst Scott Wright of said. “He had a big opportunity with Niklas going pro (early), and didn’t take advantage of it.

“And the thing I keep hearing about him from league people, they question his desire. Does he love football?”

Every starting tight end for Notre Dame dating back a decade has gone on to become either a first- or second-round draft choice. Koyack is on a trajectory to break the string.

So rich is ND’s recent run of NFL-ready tight ends, even Jerome Collins, Anthony Fasano’s backup in Collins’ only season playing offense for the Irish (2004) and a non-starter his entire college career, got plucked in the fifth round by the St. Louis Rams in the 2005 draft.

The last Irish starting tight end who didn’t get drafted in the first or second round was Billy Palmer (2003). Palmer, in fact, went undrafted. He was succeeded by Fasano (second-rounder), John Carlson (second), Kyle Rudolph (second), Tyler Eifert (first), Niklas (second) and now Koyack.

“If teams can get comfortable with Koyack off the field, that he is going to play with passion,” Wright said, “that’s going to be his best chance to move up.”

Scholarship math

The offseason numbers game for Notre Dame football is just beginning, and safety Eilar Hardy securing a release from the school was the first and most predictable of what figures to be a trickle of 11 roster alterations if, as expected, the latest Irish recruiting class swells from 22 to 25 by Feb. 4.

The magic number is 85 scholarship players by the start of fall camp, not on National Signing Day or when the bulk of the recruits enroll in June, so theoretically there’s not a pressing need for quick resolutions to being at a floating 96.

The path of least resistance is players with fifth-year options seeking grad-school style transfers elsewhere or jumping into the work force, and ND has 13 of them. But not all the attrition figures to come from this group.

The rest will come from traditional transfers and/or medical hardships.

As for Hardy, the 6-foot-2, 202-pound Reynoldsburg, Ohio, product seemed happy to get a publicity bump Friday night from news he essentially announced himself on Twitter late last month, that the Dec. 30 Music City Bowl matchup with LSU would be his last game at ND.

His constant retweeting of a stream of links to short stories confirming his securing of a release perhaps was his way of trying to get the word out and widen his options after he graduates in May.

It’s not a complete stretch to envision Hardy’s best football being ahead of him. Bouts of inconsistency and immaturity, and not lack of talent, led to his patchy playing time at Notre Dame. Conditions related to ND’s academic fraud investigation, per a source who wishes to remain anonymous, prompted him to have to spend his fifth year elsewhere.

After not playing a single snap in 2011 or 2012, Hardy was suspended twice, for the Purdue and Stanford games, in 2013. In 2014, he was a part of the school’s probe that effectively ended the ND football career of linebacker Kendall Moore and in part coaxed wide receiver DaVaris Daniels to truncate his.

Hardy was the only player, among the five implicated, who returned to play in 2014. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive end Ishaq Williams have pledged to return in June.

And while Hardy made a modest nine tackles collectively in the five games he was eligible to play in this past season, he provided coach Brian Kelly with a much-needed safety net at a position group (safety) that was perilously thin in late November and into the bowl game.

Most importantly, he’s on track to walk away with an ND degree.

Time for a change?

An early signing period for football recruiting could become a reality this summer and implemented in the coming 2016 cycle if it passes through the necessary legislative channels.

Per Dennis Dodd of CBS, that 72-hour period would occur Dec. 16-18 if approved. Players would then have the option to sign during that window or wait until the traditional signing day, the first Wednesday in February.

Good for Notre Dame?

Per Dodd’s story, the 12-person early-signing committee that made the recommendation, uncovered in its research that 90 percent of the prospects end up signing with the first school they commit to anyway and only 10 percent flip.

The number flipping to Notre Dame during the Brian Kelly Era, including this class, is almost double (19 percent). That includes five players in the 2015 class, including four of its most highly rated prospects.

That group comprises tight end Aliz’e Jones (UCLA), quarterback Brandon Wimbush (Penn State), linebacker Josh Barajas (Penn State), cornerback Shawn Crawford (Michigan) and cornerback Ashton White (Virginia Tech).

With an early signing period, there are likely to be different dynamics and deadlines, but here are the players in the Kelly Era who flipped to ND after the dates of the proposed early signing period: Jones, Max Redfield, Gunner Kiel, Chase Hounshell, Aaron Lynch, Nick Martin, Luke Massa, Tate Nichols, Derek Roback, Danny Spond, Kona Schwenke, Peter Mokwuah and technically Stephon Tuitt.

Tuitt, though, both decommitted from and recommitted to ND after the projected early period, spending a few days as Georgia Tech recruit.

Many happy returns

After the numbers were adjusted for early entries into the NFL Draft, ND remains the team among the 65 Power Conference squads with the most returning starters in 2015, with 19.

Appalachian State leads all FBS teams with 20.

Two non-Power 5 Irish opponents match ND’s 19 —UMass (3-9) and Temple (6-6). The Owls are the only FBS school with all 11 defensive starters returning.

The rest of ND’s 2015 opponents and the returnees are as follows: Texas (6-7) 13, Virginia (5-7) 10, Georgia Tech (11-3) 13, Clemson (10-3) 11, Navy (8-5) 11, USC (9-4) 14, Pitt (6-7) 15, Wake Forest (3-9) 16, Boston College (7-6) nine, and Stanford (8-5) 13.

Class consciousness

DaVaris Daniels’ recent leap into the 2015 NFL Draft pool makes him the fifth member of Brian Kelly’s 2011 recruiting class that will leave the school early for the NFL without a degree.

Aaron Lynch did it in a roundabout way, transferring to South Florida after one year at ND, sitting out a season per NCAA transfer rules the year the Irish played for the national title, then leaving USF after one season on the field there.

The other early departures from the 2011 class all occurred last January — defensive end Stephon Tuitt, tight end Troy Niklas and running back George Atkinson III.

None of the four who were in last year’s draft was a first-rounder.


Notre Dame tight end Ben Koyack (88) scores a touchdown after Norfolk State outside linebacker Lynden Trail was called out for a face-mask violation during the Senior Bowl, Saturday at in Mobile, Ala. (AP Photo/BUTCH DILL)