NCAA Football: Purdue at Notre Dame

Spring Solutions: Tight Ends


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.


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


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.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.