There isn’t much debate. There isn’t much competition. He’s blown most of it away.
Notre Dame senior Tyler Eifert is the best tight end in college football.
Everyone knows it; everyone says it. Except for Eifert himself, of course.
“Uh, no,” said the quiet, unassuming Fort Wayne, Ind., product when asked if there was ever a point during his development that he thought he would become the best tight end in the country.
“That was always the goal, but I don’t know if I ever really believed it.”
There’s no shortage of confidence now, even though you’d never know it by observing Eifert’s body language, except of course when he’s making another lunging, stretching, contortionist-like catch of the football. Throw the football somewhere within the confines of a football field and chances are the 6-foot-6, 251-pound Eifert will come down with it.
While Michael Floyd was shattering Notre Dame records for single-season and career receptions in 2011, Eifert was establishing himself as a force as well. He followed a promising 27-catch season in 2010 with a 63-reception, 803-yard, five-touchdown junior year in 2011 that made him every bit the big-play threat as his NFL first-round draft choice teammate.
So what will Eifert do for an encore, particularly now that Floyd is gone?
According to his head coach, he’ll work harder than he ever has before.
“Here’s what I love about Tyler Eifert,” said Brian Kelly late last week. “You know you’re moving your program along when your best players are your best workers, and our best players (referring to Eifert and linebacker Manti Te’o) had an incredible summer.
“(Eifert has) just been incredible to work with over the past couple of years, to see his development and his maturity. He’s a leader on our football team. When I first got here, he was in the back row. He was two or three rows back. Now he’s up front.
“So you can understand from my perspective that it’s exciting when your best player, one of your best players, has that kind of desire to be the best.”
In typical Eifert fashion, he simply shrugs when asked about his work ethic.
“That’s just the way I know how to do things, to come in and work hard,” Eifert said. “It’s really not whether you’re the best or the worst player, it’s just a standard that I’ve set for myself. I’m sure the guys respect that. As a leader, that’s another way to gain the guys’ respect. That’s the way I do it.”
Eifert caught enough passes last year to be considered a prime candidate for early selection in the NFL draft this past spring had he chosen to bypass his final two years of eligibility. (Stanford’s Coby Fleener was the top tight end selection at No. 34, the second pick of the second round by the Colts.) But by returning for the 2012 season, Eifert is in line to earn his undergraduate degree in the Mendoza College of Business.
The NFL could wait.
“I guess in the NFL they’re all your teammates, but they’re coming from all over, all different backgrounds, and they may be 10 years older than you,” Eifert said. “These guys here are guys I’ve hung out with all summer and have made great relationships with. Just being out there with all your buddies means a lot to me.”
For those who saw Eifert’s prep career at Bishop Dwenger High School, his pass-catching prowess comes as no surprise. Eifert played as a wideout a large portion of the time. But his prep numbers paled in comparison to the statistics he’s posting with the Irish.
Eifert’s versatility allows Kelly the luxury of moving him around, whether it’s the Y (tight end) position or the W (wide receiver) spot.
“Being a receiver most of my life, it makes it easier to play W,” Eifert said. “I’m just more comfortable there. But I’ve played tight end for about four years now, so I’m pretty used to that, too.
“I’m not thinking about (making up for Floyd’s absence). I just need to understand where I’m supposed to be, when to be there, and make the plays when my number is called. That’s all I’m concerned with. I don’t really feel the pressure to do that as long as I understand the offense and do what I’m asked. The coaches will put me in positions to make plays.”
Low key has worked well for Eifert so far. No need to change now, although a spot in the front row of a Brian Kelly team meeting suits him just fine now that he’s a senior and an established performer.
“As a freshman, you come in and you don’t say much,” Eifert said. “You learn your role and get to know the guys. The worst thing you can do as a freshman is come in and be too comfortable. You earn the guys’ respect and their confidence over time.
“People say you lead by example, which I do. You come to work with the same consistent effort every day. You don’t have to be yelling as a leader. You pull a player aside and give him a tip. You’ve been there and you know, so help out any way you can.”
Deep down, Eifert has a pretty good idea how good he has become.
“Internally you always think you’re the best, but you never really express it,” Eifert said.
Unless, of course, there’s a football heading in his direction. It’s then that Eifert speaks loud and clear.