Offseason cheat sheet: Tight ends

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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.

POSITIONAL OVERVIEW

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.

ROSTER READING

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

CRYSTAL BALL

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.