NOTRE DAME — The list is nearly as long as it is prestigious.
Dave Casper. Ken MacAfee. Anthony Fasano. John Carlson. Kyle Rudolph. And now Tyler Eifert.
With Eifert gone and likely a first-round draft pick later this month, the next entry to the fraternity of elite Notre Dame tight ends now falls upon the shoulders of Eifert’s successors.
Enter Troy Niklas, Alex Welch and Ben Koyack.
Welch was poised to be Eifert’s backup before tearing his ACL in August. Niklas was swapped from reserve outside linebacker to tight end and filled in for Welch, while Koyack played in 12 games and started one as a sophomore.
But don’t expect any of them to become Tyler Eifert 2.0.
“There’s no pressure,” Welch said of Notre Dame’s famed tight end position. “It’s kind of a prestige. We’re going to try to be ourselves. We lost Tyler Eifert and he’s a great tight end, but none of us are trying to replace him. We’re just trying to be ourselves and go out and help the team.”
As Welch recovers from his ACL injury, Niklas is primed to fill in as the No. 1 tight end. But how does he make up for Notre Dame’s top target of 2012?
Simple: He doesn’t.
“He will not be played the way we played Tyler Eifert,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Niklas. “This is probably a bad example, but to give you a general feeling, (Niklas) is (Rob) Gronkowski. Eifert is (Aaron) Hernandez of the Patriots. Hernandez they move all over the place.”
Instead, Niklas will become more of an in-line player utilized for blocking while the offense develops a more consistent slot receiver, such as Amir Carlisle, CJ Prosise or Chris Brown.
The 6-foot-6½, 259-pound Niklas would like to see some evolution in his ball-handling skills so he can become the double-threat Eifert was.
“Ty’s in a league of his own,” Niklas said of his mentor. “I said to myself that I wanted to put a huge emphasis on route-running and catching the ball because I didn’t really do that last year in games. I wanted to be a more dynamic route-runner.”
Niklas finished the 2012 season with five catches for 75 yards and a touchdown. Koyack rotated in for him at times, nabbing three catches for 39 yards. Between different body types and play styles, Koyack doesn’t know if there’s a “new Tyler Eifert” in the bunch, but as a whole, he said, the trio can be pretty good.
“Everyone always says, ‘oh, you’re a tight end here,’ so there’s definitely high expectations, there’s a lot going on with a tight end position,” Koyack said. “I feel like we have a really good group of guys. It doesn’t necessarily have to be one of us. It can be all of us.”