Notre Dame had a deep tight end corps in 2012.
It was hard to notice with Tyler Eifert around.
Eifert, who finished his Notre Dame career with 140 receptions, 1,840 yards and 11 touchdowns, was at the forefront of virtually everything the Irish did with the position, particularly in the passing game.
Although his receptions dipped between his junior (63) and senior (50) seasons, he remained the primary focus of the Irish passing game, particularly once Everett Golson adapted to his role as starting quarterback.
Eifert, of course, is on the verge of becoming a first-round NFL draft choice, and it’s a good thing the Irish are deep at that position because they lost a truly great one. Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack, Alex Welch, early-entry freshman Mike Heuerman and former basketball player Joey Brooks are among those vying for a piece of the tight end pie that Eifert has been eating almost exclusively since Kyle Rudolph went down with a season-ending injury in 2010.
“It opened the door for all of us, whether one of us is on the field or three of us,” said Koyack, a junior this fall. “It gives all of us great opportunities.”
Koyack’s opportunities have been few and far between for a guy who caught 152 passes for 2,591 yards and 28 touchdowns during his prep career at Oil City (Pa.) High School. In fact, as the season progressed in 2012, Koyack lost reps to Niklas, and now has Welch - who missed the season with a knee injury - back in the mix.
“It’s always tough to transition, especially when it’s something you’re not used to,” said Koyack of his expanded blocking role in 2011-12. “When the coach tells you to go somewhere else and play, everyone here is going to try to do everything he can to play that role.
“I did my share of blocking in high school, but I definitely didn’t do a lot of pass blocking. That’s something I’ve had to concentrate a lot on.”
Koyack’s confidence seemed to wane as an attached tight end or a motioning H-back, and Niklas formed a double-tight end alignment with Eifert. It took Eifert time to perfect his craft as a blocker, and the growing pains for Koyack were obvious. Koyack hopes to find a comfort zone both in terms of the execution as a blocker as well as the offense and his role in the passing game.
“I kind of had to go out there and get comfortable with it,” said Koyack of supplementary role. “In high school, you know everything inside and out. We’re starting to get to that point where I understand our offense a lot better and I’ve been able to do more than I used to do.”
Koyack can still picture the effortless success of Eifert, who made it look so easy and provided the rest of the tight ends someone upon which to pattern their game.
“It’s hard to believe sometimes,” said a smiling Koyack as he thought back to Eifert’s Notre Dame career. “It’s so effortless for him, and that’s something that you try to emulate.
“His work ethic -- even if he wasn’t having the best practice he’s ever had -- he’d be out there going 100 percent, making great catches and great plays. He’s a perfect example of someone you can learn from by just watching him in practice and games.”
Koyack is hopeful that his future as a pass-catching tight end is brighter than his four catches for 44 yards in two seasons seems to indicate.
“You’ve just got to work hard,” Koyack said. “You’re there for a reason; you’re there for a purpose. We’re here to get better every day. (Eifert) gave 100 percent every single day. All we can do is give the same effort and try to get better.
“With Tyler being gone, that opens up some roles. We want to be the guy who gets that opportunity now. It opens up everything for everybody.”