Instead of looking around the tight end room and focusing on the empty chair once used by All-American Tyler Eifert, who’s nearing an NFL Draft windfall, Notre Dame assistant coach Scott Booker sees potential, personality, leadership and a promising future at that position.
Second-year tight ends coach Scott Booker is busy developing a group of players with different physical tools and skills in the wake of Tyler Eifert's departure to the NFL.
But the reality is a Fighting Irish offense that hinged on the double-tight end set and got 685 receiving yards and four touchdowns out of Eifert in last year’s march to the BCS National Championship Game — 23 percent of the team’s total output through the air — must figure out a way to continue on with that identity or forge a new one.
Booker, also in charge of special teams on top of his duties overseeing the tight ends, feels as if the offense can pick up where it left off rather than picking up the pieces in the wake of Eifert’s Mackey Award-winning final year and subsequent jump to the professional level.
“I think that’s based on Coach [Brian] Kelly’s system of next man in,” Booker said Wednesday of not missing a beat. “We can’t worry about who we lost or anything like that. Next man in means we gotta go. We’re just excited about the opportunity we have. All those guys understand there are a lot of reps that Tyler was able to take that now are up for grabs. Whoever takes it takes it.”
Former linebacker Troy Niklas was converted to tight end last spring and excelled through the transition, appearing in all 13 games as a sophomore, catching five passes for 75 yards and a touchdown as well as working as a 6-foot-7, 260-pound in-line blocker with Eifert spread wide. Classmate Ben Koyack contributed in 12 contests, making three catches for 39 yards while helping stave off defenders at the line of scrimmage. Both hope to make even bigger strides heading into their junior seasons.
But it’s easy to forget about Alex Welch, who went down with an ACL tear in fall camp during the first practice in full pads and missed all of 2012. Welch (6-3, 245), who did not play as a freshman and worked primarily on special teams in 2011, entered the fall second on the depth chart behind Eifert prior to the injury. His goal is to position himself near the top again after a year on the sideline.
“It’s not so much of a hope but what we’re going to progress to,” Booker said. “We saw what he was capable of doing and so we feel like we’re going to get back to that.”
At the time, and probably still, Welch had the widest range of skills of the three.
“He gets a lot of credit from us, the coaches,” Booker said. “I don’t know about anybody else, but we give him a lot of credit for his hands because he has probably the best or close to the best hands on the team — softest hands.”
However the depth chart shakes out, Booker explained that the plan is not based on replacing Eifert’s production.
“It’s about the progression of the offense,” he said. “Don’t really look at how many yards Tyler had and say we have to replace it with this guy, this guy, that guy. We’re just looking to progress the offense in every aspect. And at tight end specifically, we’re looking to progress the offense by being able to block in line and also being able to be a receiving threat down the field. However we can do that, we’re able to do that.”