NCAA Football: Purdue at Notre Dame

Offseason cheat sheet: Tight ends


Tyler Eifert is gone. The All-American and Mackey Award winner rewrote the Notre Dame record books on his way to being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Not bad for a guy that was a three-star recruit, and a player with a back injury that had many thinking he’d never step foot on the field.

Eifert continued a long line of successful Irish tight ends that have gone on to respectable NFL careers. Starting it off was Anthony Fasano, still cashing a paycheck on Sundays. John Carlson joined Fasano as a second round draft pick and now plays for his home state Vikings. He’s joined by Kyle Rudolph in Minnesota, where the second year player was named the MVP of the Pro Bowl last season.

Without Eifert, the tight end position is hardly bare. Let’s walk through the roster of a position group that’s been very kind to Notre Dame over the past decade, and expects to be this year as well.


Once again, the Irish are in a position to utilize multiple TE sets in their offense, taking advantage of a depth chart filled with veteran players. One of the benefits of Brian Kelly and Bill Belichick’s newfound friendship was Kelly’s chance to have he and his offensive staff pick Belichick and Josh McDaniel’s brain on the different ways to utilize multiple tight end sets. While Belichick won’t have that opportunity as much this year with Rob Gronkowski recovering from surgery and Aaron Hernandez likely spending the rest of his life behind bars, that won’t stop the Irish from getting Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack and Alex Welch on the field together.

Adding two freshmen tight ends in Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe also protects the Irish from the depth chart getting too top heavy, with Niklas, Welch and Koyack all in their third year of competition.

The Irish already have a recruiting commitment from Illinois’ Nic Weishar and are in the mix for Southern California blue-chipper Tyler Luatua as well, so restocking the position is a priority in this cycle.


Here’s a look at the position group, with yesterday’s depth chart worked into the ordering.

1. Troy Niklas, Jr. #85
2. Ben Koyack, Jr. #18
3. Alex Welch, Sr. #82
4. Mike Heuerman, Fr. #9
5. Durham Smythe, Fr. #80


If there’s one position group that’ll likely benefit from Tommy Rees getting back in the saddle, it’s tight end. Rees and Tyler Eifert made sweet, sweet music together in ’10 and ’11, working the vertical seams as well as any combination in college football. While nobody on this roster gets up the field as well as Eifert, there’s every reason to believe that footballs will be coming fast and furious to the tight ends.

Troy Niklas has the best opportunity to be the beneficiary of Rees’ return. Learning on the fly last year as a glorified offensive tackle, Niklas has athleticism that hasn’t truly been revealed, and you get the feeling that he and the staff expect to surprise some people over the next few Saturdays with his ability to make plays down field.

That doesn’t mean we should sleep on Ben Koyack or Alex Welch. Koyack never seemed to get his mojo back after some early drops against Navy and he gave ground to Niklas as an attached blocker. But Koyack has the ability to be dominant at the line of scrimmage as well, and the 261-pounder should take a big step forward this year.

Welch appears to be all the way back from an ACL injury suffered last fall. He’s not the physical specimen that Niklas or Koyack are, but he’s a smooth athlete that will be a productive player this year. If all three guys stay healthy, there will be times when all three could be on the field together, giving the offense true jumbo capabilities.

It’ll be interesting to see if Heuerman or Smythe see the field this year. From a special teams perspective, Heuerman might be the more attractive option, as he’s more of a runner and stood out last season as a defensive player in high school. Both have gotten high praise from the coaching staff, but neither are physically ready to contribute at the line of scrimmage, with Heuerman weighing 225 and Smythe 235.

Even amidst chaos, Kelly expecting USC’s best

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Rocky Hayes, Blaise Taylor

USC head coach Steve Sarkisian was fired on Monday, with interim head coach Clay Helton taking the reins of the Trojan program during tumultuous times. Helton will be the fourth different USC head coach to face Notre Dame in as many years, illustrative of the chaos that’s shaken up Heritage Hall in the years since Pete Carroll left for the NFL.

All eyes are on the SC program, with heat on athletic director Pat Haden and the ensuing media circus that only Los Angeles can provide. But Brian Kelly doesn’t expect anything but their best when USC boards a plane to take on the Irish in South Bend.

While the majority of Notre Dame’s focus will be inward this week, Kelly did take the time on Sunday and Monday to talk with his team about the changes atop the Trojan program, and how they’ll likely impact the battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh.

“We talked about there would be an interim coach, and what that means,” Kelly said. “Teams come together under those circumstances and they’re going to play their very best. And I just reminded them of that.”

While nobody on this Notre Dame roster has experienced a coaching change, they’ve seen their share of scrutiny. The Irish managed to spring an upset not many saw coming against LSU last year in the Music City Bowl after a humiliating defeat against the Trojans and amidst the chaos of a quarterbacking controversy. And just last week, we saw Charlie Strong’s team spring an upset against arch rival Oklahoma when just about everybody left the Longhorns for dead.

“I think you look at the way Texas responded this past weekend with a lot of media scrutiny,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I expect USC to respond the same way, so we’re going to have to play extremely well.”

Outside of the head coaching departure, it’s difficult to know if there’ll be any significant difference between a team lead by Sarkisian or the one that Helton will lead into battle. The offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has been at USC for six years, and has already held the title of interim head coach when he led the Trojans to a 2013 Las Vegas Bowl title after Lane Kiffin was fired and Ed Orgeron left the program after he wasn’t given the full time position.

Helton will likely call plays, a role he partially handled even when Sarkisian was on the sideline. The defense will still be run by Justin Wilcox. And more importantly, the game plan will be executed by a group of players that are among the most talented in the country.

“They have some of the finest athletes in the country. I’ve recruited a lot of them, and they have an immense amount of pride for their program and personal pride,” Kelly said. “So they will come out with that here at Notre Dame, there is no question about that.”

Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.