This article is a part of our 2012 Player Projections series. During the summer months BlueandGold.com will be evaluating each player on Notre Dame’s projected two-deep depth chart — reviewing their careers to this point and discussing expectations for the year to come.
Junior Alex Welch joins sophomores Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas in the competition for playing time at tight end in 2012.
Alex Welch — TE
Height: 6-foot-4 Weight: 250
Experience: 10 appearances, zero starts
Stats: 1 reception, 8 yards, three special teams tackles
Ben Koyack — TE
Height: 6-foot-5 Weight: 253
Experience: 12 appearances, 1 start
Stats: 1 reception, five yards,
Troy Niklas — TE
Height: 6-foot-7 Weight: 252
Experience: 12 appearances, 1 start
Stats: 20 tackles as outside linebacker and on special teams
You might not see the name “Albentroy Welkoynik” on the 2012 Notre Dame roster. But he exists in the form of a three-man combination behind All-America Tyler Eifert at tight end.
Eifert is Michael Floyd’s replacement — not by position, but as the “aircraft carrier” around which the derivatives of the offense are built.
“The tight end now becomes a multi-dimensional player that can line up [everywhere],” summarized Irish head coach Brian Kelly of Eifert used as a “flex” wide receiver in 2012.
Koyack was one of the elite 2011 tight end recruits and became a regular in the double tight-end alignment last year. Welch was slowed by injuries in 2011, but he rebounded with a strong spring. He started for the offense as the in-line blocker in the Blue-Gold Game while Eifert was split wide.
Koyack caught four passes for 38 yards and TD in the Blue-Gold Game, and Welch also grabbed a 13-yard pass. However, their value won’t necessarily be measured by receptions.
Stanford recruited Niklas as a tight end, and he was moved there this spring after a strong freshman year at outside linebacker and on special teams. His aggressive, physical style were deemed necessary to complement Eifert’s play-making skills as a receiver. Although he missed the final week of spring drills with concussion issues, Niklas has been cleared for summer workouts, according to Kelly.
“The battle at [No. 2] tight end is who’s going to control the edge and the line of scrimmage,” said Kelly, who also will have senior Jake Golic, slowed throughout his career with injuries, in the mix. “We’ve clearly defined their role … if you can catch it, that’s fine. You better in-line block and you better control the edge of this defense. That’s the guy that will be the next one in.”
Notre Dame’s combination of 1) multiple, athletic tight ends and 2) a lack of proven game-day performers at wideout might make two- and three-tight end sets a regular staple of this year’s offense.
“When you’re looking to use multiple tight ends, more than we have in the past, then you better have multiple bodies,” said first-year Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin. “Say you’re going to play two tight ends — you better have at least three guys for 13 games, because with one injury you’re down to two for two spots, and then you’re limited in what you’re trying to do on offense. If you play multiple tight ends, you have to have at least four guys you feel can play at a high level.
“There’s a chance that with the depth at tight end it could be one of the stronger units. That’s yet to be determined because Eifert’s the only one who’s really played in a game with any high-level success. The others still have to prove it.”
A template that Notre Dame might follow is what Stanford did in 2011 when three different Cardinal tight ends — Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo — caught at least 25 passes and combined for 20 TDs. Stanford maximized its strength at tight end while camouflaging its shortage at wideout.
Eifert is easily the standout at tight end. What is uncertain is if there will be a clearly defined No. 2 — and if Notre Dame would be comfortable lining up three tights end at once.
What's A Good Season?
Sometimes it’s difficult to quantify merely by stats what a “good” season can be at tight end. In Kelly’s first season, No. 3 tight end Mike Ragone caught only three passes for 32 yards, but after an injury to starter Kyle Rudolph, Eifert and Ragone were starters in a two-tight end package that appreciably enhanced the running game and helped the Irish win their final four games.
“Our vision is to get the best playmakers on the field,” first-year tight end coach Scott Booker said. “Whatever that number is, we’re going to get our best guys on the field.”
Whether it will be Welch, Koyack or Niklas, if not multiple sets among the trio at once, a total of 20 catches by that trio at about 10 to 12 yards per clip with maybe two or three touchdowns might look pretty darn good on paper to complement Eifert.
But the real gauge for the staff will be how much they facilitate the ground game with their blocking. That’s something that won’t be on the individual stat sheet, but will definitely be a prime topic in the staff’s Sunday grading system after the tape review of Saturday’s game.