It was about this time last year that tight end Tyler Eifert went from another rising tight end at Notre Dame to one of the nation’s premier, All-American clutch targets, especially on third down.
The Irish were trailing 12-7 at Pitt in the fourth quarter of the fourth game, in good part because the Panthers made an all-out commitment to prevent senior wide receiver Michael Floyd from beating them. Floyd had caught 12 passes for 154 yards and 13 for 159 in Notre Dame’s first two games. Against Pitt, though, Floyd saw the coverage rolled totally into his direction after some early grabs, and he ended up with only 27 yards receiving.
So on Notre Dame’s go-ahead touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, quarterback Tommy Rees repeatedly looked for Eifert, who caught four passes, including a clutch 18-yarder on third down before snaring a bullet for a 6-yard score, and also adding the two-point conversion in the hard fought 15-12 win.
This year, opposing defenses are dedicating game plans to shut down Eifert, so Notre Dame is searching for the consistent complement that the tight end became last year. The problem is that a fledgling receiving corps is trying to develop a second matchup nightmare like the 6-6 Eifert was last year to complement first-round pick Floyd.
After compiling a career game-high 98 yards receiving — with each of the four catches totaling at least 22 yards — on his 22nd birthday in the 20-17 Sept. 8 victory versus Purdue, Eifert became missing in action in the pass attack. He did not catch any balls in the 20-3 victory at Michigan State, and he was shut out for the first three quarters plus nearly 13 minutes in the 13-6 win versus Michigan a week later.
Defensive plans center on re-routing Eifert to throw off the timing with him. When he’s split out on the edge, a safety is rolled over the top to help a corner blanket him. Elementary plots, but then it’s up to other members of the pass-catching corps to take advantage of the emphasis on stopping Eifert, and the quarterback to go beyond his receiving security blanket.
“You don’t run your routes any differently,” said Eifert of the lessons he’s learned from Floyd on dealing with defensive coverages. “I’ve never seen him completely frustrated in a game. He’s always calm, so I guess I’ve learned that from him. Just keep playing. It’s a long game, and be patient.
“Run the routes the way I’m coached to run them. I’m ready to make a play whenever the ball comes my way.”
Eifert finally emerged late versus Michigan. With 2:35 left and the Irish facing third-and-4 from their 31, the veteran tandem of Rees and Eifert immediately recognized the defensive look presented by the Wolverines that would create a potential opening for the tight end.
“It was a look where you’re supposed to check the play,” said Eifert of what would prove to be pretty much a game-clinching 38-yard catch on a “go” route. “You don’t expect to check the play when it’s third-and-4 to a ‘go,’ but that’s what we were supposed to do, and that’s what he did and made a play. [Rees] signals it to me [in the pre-snap read], but I know the look — I knew it was coming.”
And that’s one of the reasons why Rees was in the game instead of sophomore Everett Golson. Experience and knowledge of such situations doesn’t come overnight.
"I don't think it's as much right now a product of Tyler not being involved in the passing game, per se, as much as how efficiently we can throw the ball in certain situations and make good decisions and make good reads and get the ball where it needs to get to," offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said during the bye week. "Trust me, Tyler's been doing awesome and he's been an unbelievable teammate and competitor. But not just for him, for us, we're a better team if the ball gets in 80's direction more. It's certainly not by design that the ball's not going there."
There have been flashes from the receiving corps. When Eifert was sidelined late in the Purdue game with an injury, veterans John Goodman and Robby Toma made clutch third-down grabs to set up the game-winning field goal with seven seconds left.
Junior T.J. Jones continues to improve as a reliable target who has been getting better separation, snaring six passes for 94 yards — nearly 16 yards per catch — the past two games.
Sophomore DaVaris Daniels has recovered from an early season ankle injury and grabbed three passes for 40 yards against Michigan. He remains a potential home-run threat, while freshman speedster Chris Brown is on the cusp of getting his first collegiate reception.
Running back Theo Riddick is the top receiver statistically, with his 14 receptions averaging a modest 8.4 yards.
Still, Eifert remains the aircraft carrier for a passing attack in search of a consistent complement. With just nine catches for 158 yards (17.6 yards per catch), it’s unlikely he’ll challenge his Notre Dame single season tight end records of 63 catches for 803 yards from last year, but his relatively laid-back personality is not one to demand more touches.
“It’s not really my style,” he said. “I can’t really get frustrated when we’re 4-0. If we were 0-4, then I’d probably be pretty upset … I’d rather be getting the ball, but when you’re 4-0 there’s not a whole lot you can complain about.
“I can run my routes better and more precise. It really depends a lot on the defense too.”
This weekend Eifert and his cohorts will be running routes against a defense that is yielding an amazing 17.2 yards per completion and 9.7 yards per attempt. It is 114th in total defense (494.6 yards per game) and against its four FBS opponents, it has surrendered an average of 39.3 points.
If Notre Dame’s offense has a chance to “come to pass” this season, this weekend might be as good a time as any.