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Spring Solutions: Tight Ends

Mar 17, 2013, 1:05 AM EDT

NCAA Football: Purdue at Notre Dame AP

No pressure, guys.

For Troy Niklas, Alex Welch, Ben Koyack and Mike Heuerman, there’s got to be a little bit extra on their shoulders this spring, as they watch another Notre Dame All-American tight end prepare to go early in the NFL Draft. It’s beginning to become one of the sports’ most consistent position groups, with Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph and now Tyler Eifert all top draft picks and productive pros in the NFL. (Heck, even transfer Will Yeatman has spent two seasons in the NFL, Konrad Reuland is on the Jets roster and UCLA’s Joe Fauria looks poised to have a nice career on Sundays as well.)

The four Irish tight ends (five including walk-on Joey Brooks) that’ll be working with young tight ends coach Scott Booker have plenty of slack to pick up, with Eifert leaving a gigantic hole with his productivity as both a pass catcher and blocker. And for the first time in a long while, there’s no hint that the players on the roster will be ready to step in and reload, as has happened the past several seasons. The closest thing to that might be Niklas, who is bringing back a whopping five catches and 75 yards in his first season at the position after playing his freshman year as a swiss-army like defender.

Yet there’s plenty of talent at a position of major importance for Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin. Let’s take a look at the spring depth chart and walk through some expectations.

TIGHT END DEPTH CHART

1. Troy Niklas, Jr.
2. Alex Welch, Sr.
3. Ben Koyack, Soph.
4. Mike Heuerman, Fr.
5. Joey Brooks, Sr.

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Troy Niklas: We’ll get a better idea of what Troy Niklas can be as a tight end in the next 15 practices. From a talent and physical perspective, there’s every reason to think he can join the group above as a high level NFL Draft pick. Finding someone with Niklas’ elite size and athleticism, at 6-foot-7, 260-pounds, is rare.

With a learn-on-the-fly 2012 behind him, Niklas will now see if he’s got what it takes to be a full-time starter. After spending most of last season as an attached blocker — not all that easy for a guy that shed blocks the season before — Niklas’ growth throughout the season was readily apparent. Now he’ll need to show some savvy as a receiver and offensive threat, making use of the hands and surprising speed that teammates and coaches rave about.

Alex Welch: The 2012 was a tough one for Welch, who tore his ACL in the first days of fall camp. Welch was set to see significant playing time in two tight end formations, snaps that ended up going to Niklas with Welch down for the season.

Welch isn’t the physical presence that Niklas is, but he is a versatile guy and should embrace being finally able to get his chance. Yet we’ll need to see if the knee that robbed him of his junior season is ready to go, with only seven months past since surgery. If Welch is able to get a feel for the offense, while staying healthy, this spring should be considered a success.

Ben Koyack: Last season got off on the wrong foot for Koyack and it seemed to stay that way. A couple of early drops against Navy seemed to set the tone for the season, and Koyack — who had a promising debut as a freshman — took a step back as a sophomore.

This spring should be a fresh start for the Oil City, Pennsylvania native, who has an intriguing set of skills and quite a bit of physical prowess himself. At 6-foot-5, 255-pounds, Koyack’s got the heft and athleticism needed to be a big time player, he just needs to get his mojo back after a difficult 2012.

Mike Heuerman: Coming in early is a great situation for Heuerman, who needs to spend the semester enjoying training table and putting in extra time with Paul Longo. What Notre Dame will get out of Heuerman is a great wild card. As a senior in high school, he was largely held out of the stat sheet after his high school switched to a Wing-T offense. Now he’s going to an offense that’s among the most tight end friendly in the country.

It’ll be interesting to see the Irish’s spring roster, if only to see where the young freshman slots in on the program. If he’s close to the 6-foot-4, 225-pounds he was listed at on Signing Day, he’s got a long way to go before this staff will feel comfortable letting him bang in the trenches.

Joey Brooks: Perhaps it says something about the positional depth chart that the Irish coaching staff would take a flier on a basketball reserve that struggled to break into Mike Brey’s playing rotation. Yet Brooks’ tangible traits — namely his size and athleticism– are hard to ignore, even if Brooks couldn’t dominate on the hardwood.

Brooks will participate in his first football practice this week and be one of the true experiments of spring practice. Chances like this have a way of working out until they don’t. It’s easy to point to Kelly’s flips of offensive players Bennett Jackson, Matthias Farley and KeiVarae Russell to plug and play defenders in the secondary, but Lane Clelland’s work as a defensive end was a success until it wasn’t.

Perhaps Brooks signifies a new step in Notre Dame’s evolution. With a solid base of scholarship players, Kelly and his staff will look to unusual methods to add unique pieces to the roster. That could be the basketball team or adding several recruited walk-ons to supplement the kicking and punting competition.

Brooks’ spring session will be a success if he finds himself with the football team this summer and fall. If he can make it through the heavy dose of learning and let his athletic traits shine, it might be another success story for the Irish.

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