In recent years, perhaps no school in the country has produced more quality tight ends than the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
The results speak for themselves. The last four tight ends that came through South Bend were either All Americans or at least put up AA numbers. First it was Anthony Fasano (drafted 2nd round by Dallas Cowboys), then John Carlson (2nd rd, Seattle Seahawks), Kyle Rudolph (2nd rd, Minnesota Vikings) and now Tyler Eifert, who won the Mackey Award this past year, given to the nations top tight end.
So now that Eifert, who was the safety valve of all Irish quarterbacks the last two years, is gone, who will shoulder the load?
The Irish are going to be very young and inexperienced at the position in 2013. There are three veterans returning and two freshmen being brought in. Here’s an in-depth look at the candidates…
Troy Niklas has the best chance to start next year. He’s arguably the best pure athlete on the team, but has bounced around between tight end and defensive end. At 6’7” 260lbs, he’s got all the physical skills in the world, but he’s still learning the position. With only 5 receptions last year, he needs seasoning as well.
Ben Koyack also needs some seasoning, and he’s still trying to live up to the gawdy numbers he put up in high school making him such a highly recruited prospect. He’s the most natural receiver of any of the tight ends on the current roster, but direly needs to improve his blocking.
Alex Welch is the old man of the group as a 4th year junior. He more than likely won’t be starting, but would make a solid blocking #2 in two tight end sets. As you can see, even the ‘veterans’ at the tight end position are incredibly inexperienced, with virtually no production thus far in their careers. This is exactly why one of the freshmen coming in could get a lot of snaps.
Mike Heuerman has good hands and athleticism, but at 6’4” 220lbs, needs to put on some weight if he’s going to help at all in the ground game. Durham Smythe is the wild card of the entire group. At 6’6” 230lbs, he looks the part of the classic ND tight end. He’s big, athletic, has strong hands and is a decent blocker. He and Niklas have the highest ceilings, and pairing the two together is a very intriguing option for head coach Brian Kelly.
So all in all, it’s going to be a heck of battle raging both in spring and summer drills. Whoever wins the job certainly has big shoes to fill to keep the tradition at ‘Tight End U’. I’d have to say Niklas is clear and away the front-runner to replace Eifert, but don’t be surprised if one of the young bucks make a run as well.
Rick Stavig is a National Recruiting Columnist for RantSports.com. In addition to covering College Football, he also covers the NFL and NFL Draft. Follow him on Twitter @rickstavig or add him to your network on google.