Friday, April 20, 2012
Irish getting creative with tight ends
By Matt Fortuna
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Chuck Martin received a late Christmas gift after he moved from safeties coach to offensive coordinator. The gift, former linebacker Troy Niklas, received a chance to play with an All-America tight end. That tight end, Tyler Eifert, received more responsibilities after he decided to return to Notre Dame.
Just how much more the tight ends will be utilized in the Irish's offense remains to be seen. But don't bother asking Martin if he can make it work with multiple tight ends, as the abundance of talent at the position -- Alex Welch and Ben Koyack are also capable options -- presents a good problem for the offense to work out.
All-America tight end Tyler Eifert is spending the offseason learning every receiver position.
"Everyone's like 'Are you going to go two tight ends?' I don't even think in those terms," Martin said. "When I learned offense from Coach [Brian] Kelly back when I was an assistant the first time, it was like, personnel's for fans and media. Like, if Eifert's flexed out is he a Y or a Z? I don't know, you can call him whatever you want. He's just playing there, you know? And [he has] pass-catching ability, which we all know is unbelievable. So they can think you're in two tight ends, let them think we're in two tight ends.
"Eifert could be at Z or X or W, he could be a running back. We've got a package where Eifert can play running back. I don't know if we'll hand him the ball ever, but he could be our running back and throw the ball to him."
A junior season that featured more catches (63) and receiving yards (803) than every other FBS tight end has only led to a bigger challenge for Eifert, who is charged with learning every receiver position for his senior year.
It is not quite the intensive pre-draft process Eifert could have been undergoing this spring had he declared for the NFL, but it is not exactly the typical spring for a returning senior starter, either.
"All last year I knew what I was doing pretty much every play, and I knew what most of the guys were doing," Eifert said. "But it's been a little challenging having to learn, first time I've had to learn some stuff in quite a while, as far as concepts go."
Another addition to those duties has been helping with the transition of Niklas, nicknamed "Hercules" for his 6-foot-7, 252-pound frame. The former high school tight end actually started one game last season as a freshman outside linebacker before the offseason move, which he believes presents him with a higher upside.
Mastering in-line blocking has been his first course of duty.
"The biggest thing about the transition is that I guess I know what the defense is trying to do," Niklas said. "So of course I've played that outside linebacker position, I know coverages, I know different defensive philosophies that I think will help me in film study and getting open and all that kind of stuff."
New tight ends coach Scott Booker has been open to both the possibilities and the number of tight ends Notre Dame could put on the field at the same time. Seeing teams such as Stanford and the NFL's Patriots have successful offenses revolve around the tight end position has certainly presented workable models.
And that could mean the good problem of Notre Dame's offense turning into a bad one for opposing defenses.
"It's one thing if the guy's a blocker and this guy's a catcher. They're kind of 'That guy's a tight end, he becomes a wideout,' I get that," Martin said. "But if they can both block and catch, which I think we have the ability to do that, then it causes major issues for the defense, because they don't know what personnel we're in. We do everything defensively based on personnel. Twelve personnel, two tight ends on the field. Eleven personnel, one tight end.
"In our whole game plan, we have our 12 game plan and our 11 game plan, not only do you come in and say Eifert and Koyack are out at the same time and we're actually running 12 formations and 11 formations, then what do you do as a defense? As a guy who thinks he knows a little bit about defense, it's not fun, picking basically [a] game plan for 12 because you have to, and then they come out in 11 and you're not really in what you want to be in."