Ben Koyack arrived at Notre Dame from Oil City, Pa., a couple of years ago with the reputation of a pass-catching tight end.
He set Pennsylvania District 10 records for receptions (152) and yards (2,591), earning a spot on the Rivals100 list coming into Notre Dame.
Ben Koyack, meet Tyler Eifert.
Koyack saw immediate playing time as a freshman with sophomore Alex Welch. But Troy Niklas moved from outside linebacker to tight end in 2012 as Eifert became the most prolific pass-catching tight end in Notre Dame history.
Now Eifert is gone, Welch has played sparingly, and Niklas is the preferred tight end target. When you’re the second tight end in an offense that rarely targets more than one, those prep pass-catching record don’t carry much weight.
Koyack finally got a chance to do what he does best against Arizona State when his 19-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter got the Irish on the board en route to a 37-34 victory over the Sun Devils.
Not only was it Koyack’s first reception of the season, but also his first target of 2013 and first touchdown of his collegiate career.
“They put a lot of responsibility on me out there, and it’s good to have,” Koyack said. “One of the roles for our H guy is to block a lot, so that’s what I do. When (Brian Kelly) gave me an opportunity to catch the ball, I tried to make the most of it.”
Color Koyack stunned on his first reception/target of the season. DaVaris Daniels had run off his coverage near the goal line, and when Koyack broke toward the sideline to free himself up, his defender was no where to be found. When Koyack righted himself toward the goal line, he saw a whole bunch of open turf in front of him.
“There was a flood from the boundary and I just ran an out-route,” explained Koyack, who benefited from left tackle Zack Martin’s blitz pick-up of cornerback Osahon Irabor. “The defender gave me a pretty good re-route, but then he fell down. I think he was trying to run with me and just didn’t catch his feet as I broke out.
“When I turned around, there was 10 yards of open field. I was very surprised. I turned my head, kind of expecting to see a guy right there. When there wasn’t, I just tried to get in there as fast as possible.”
The reception was just the fifth of Koyack’s career (one in 2011, three in 2012) as his role as a blocker has become his top priority. It’s been a rocky transition for Koyack if Brian Kelly’s reaction to some of Koyack’s blocking assignments is any indication.
“It’s a tough game, and if you can’t take some yelling, you can’t really do it,” Koyack said. “It was definitely an adjustment I had to make, but it was an adjustment worth making to get this opportunity to get on the field.
“I’ve had a lot of tough times, but coach has stayed with me and put some trust in me. I’ve been trying my hardest to keep the confidence in myself and to keep making the blocks they’re asking me to do.”
Kelly makes no bones about the one aspect of Koyack’s game that has held him back.
“With Ben Koyack, confidence is the big thing,” Kelly said. “He’s gaining confidence week-in and week-out.”
That confidence can wane, even for a 6-foot-5, 261-pounder like Koyack. When your forte has always been your ability to catch the football, squaring up cat-quick defensive ends coming off the edge isn’t a natural transition.
“It’s something we need out of our No. 2 guy,” Koyack said. “When they’re asking me to go out there and make those blocks, I try to make the most of it and succeed at every opportunity they give me. You’ve got to have the mental toughness to put your head on someone, bang helmets and make a tough block.”
Soft-spoken and reserved by nature, Koyack gets away from the violence of football through his music. Proficient with instruments from the trombone to the piano, the guitar to the ukulele, Koyack finds his inner peace beyond the helmet and shoulder pads.
“I’ll come back after a few hours of football and just lean back with my guitar or my ukulele in my room,” said Koyack, whose mother, Karen, is a music teacher, and father, David, is a former music major and band director.
It’s a short respite before returning to the football field, where every day is a challenge for the pass-catcher-turned-blocker.
“Sometimes it’s tough getting in there and keeping your technique and the mental attitude, but it’s something that we need to get done and I try my hardest,” Koyack said.
“You can’t let it get to you. I know with good plays you’re going to get rewarded. You’ve just got to forget about the last one.”
The last reception might be a little more difficult to forget.