Notre Dame Football: Alex Welch
Ben Koyack emerged plenty last year in the No. 2 role, stepping up to catch 10 passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns -- with all but one of those catches and scores coming during the season's final six games. The 6-foot-5, 261-pound junior took plenty of pressure off Niklas and the rest of Notre Dame's more prominent pass-catchers, and he was set to build off that performance going into his senior year in 2014.
Now? The pressure is on Koyack to perform as the top target at tight end, and it is up to someone behind him to develop as a blocker and become another reliable receiving option for the Irish offense. Fortunately for Notre Dame, there are plenty of bodies at that position for a school that can boast the moniker Tight End U., and competition this spring will be a nice starting point to see who emerges in the fall.
Alex Welch is gone, choosing to play his final season at Miami (Ohio), but Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman should both have benefited from redshirt campaigns last fall as freshmen, allowing them to develop in the weight room and be more physically ready for the pounding they are sure to take at the position. Smythe was listed last year at 6-4 1/2, 235 pounds. Heuerman was at 6-3 1/2, 225, and he also had the added benefit of enrolling last spring.
It doesn't hurt that the Irish added a pair of 2014 ESPN 300 prospects in Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar, but they won't be on campus until fall practice. For now, it is up to Smythe and Heuerman to gain separation and prove that they are viable options if and when their numbers are called.
"Lo feels very comfortable with Coach Martin," Wood Sr. said. "He gave Lo his first chance to get on the field as a defensive back as a freshman at Notre Dame."
Wood joins former Irish quarterback Andrew Hendrix and tight end Alex Welch in moving to Oxford, Ohio, to join Martin, who accepted the RedHawks' head-coaching job on Dec. 3 after four years as a Fighting Irish assistant.
Martin coached Notre Dame's safeties for two seasons before becoming the program's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2012. The former position helped him connect with Wood, a cornerback who saw playing time immediately as a freshman in 2010.
The 5-foot-11, 194-pound Wood was on track to become one of the Irish's starting corners in 2012 before tearing his left Achilles during a preseason practice, costing him his junior season. Then-true freshman KeiVarae Russell took over and never looked back, starting every game the last two seasons as Wood saw mostly reserve action.
Wood, an Apopka, Fla., native, finishes his Irish career with 31 career tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and one pick-six, which he recorded in the third quarter of a 45-21 win over Maryland on Nov. 12, 2011.
"Coach Martin said he would love the opportunity for Lo to get back into his man-to-man speciality," Wood Sr. said.
- Colleague Travis Haney has a Notre Dame favorite, Eddie Vanderdoes, among his breakout players for 2014.
- SI.com's Brian Hamilton has more from Troy Niklas and his family on the NFL decision.
- Alex Welch tells the South Bend Tribune's Eric Hansen that he will be joining Andrew Hendrix at Miami (Ohio).
- Surprise, surprise: Notre Dame tickets were among the hottest sellers this year, per Forbes. (H/T to the gang at One Foot Down.)
Frank Serra writes: Who do you feel will be granted a fifth year at ND?
Matt Fortuna: Frank, if I had to guess right now, I'd say Austin Collinsworth and Christian Lombard are the most likely to come back if they want to. Kendall Moore is a possibility as well. As for the others? Lo Wood has already decided to play elsewhere next semester. There are reports of Andrew Hendrix and Alex Welch seeking other options. There is usually a surprise or two every year, but it is tough to say right now who could fit into the picture next season.
Todd from Buffalo, N.Y., writes: Do you put any credence in the theory that on teams with depth that an injury-plagued season, while disappointing, can provide a boost to the next season since younger players got a lot of playing time and experience that they might not have gotten? This could really help on defense and the O-line where multiple starters are moving on. Or am I just trying to desperately put a positive spin on an uneven 2013 campaign?
Matt Fortuna: Todd, nice try. (Kidding.) There are, though, obvious silver linings when younger players are forced to play so quickly. Was it in Notre Dame's best interest to lose two games in November? Of course not. But the fact the Irish were able to compete against strong competition with vastly depleted lines and with young players getting their feet wet certainly should alleviate some concerns about those guys as they enter the 2014 season.
Jeff from Ontario, Canada writes: If Everett Golson gets readmitted to the university, shouldn't he be able to participate in everything with the university (traveling with the team or at least practicing)?
Matt Fortuna: Obviously this question came before Golson was readmitted. But since I've gotten similar questions this month, I'll try to explain it here. Basically Golson has been readmitted to start classes at Notre Dame for the spring semester, so he is not technically a student there until classes resume there on Jan. 12, 2014. So he would not be able to participate as a Notre Dame student-athlete in competition until then, though he is certainly able to pay his own way to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl and join his teammates on his own if he would like. (And as Brian Kelly said he may do, considering his girlfriend lives in New York.)
Andrew Sama from South Bend, Ind., writes: Great article on the "Echoes" preview. Definitely agree on TJ Jones for team MVP. Folston and Jaylon Smith should probably be offensive / defensive frosh of the year but honorable mention should go to Corey Robinson. Kid had a great year and got better as the season progressed. Big things ahead for him. Sleeper candidate for defensive POY would be Dan Fox. Led the team in tackles I believe and responded to a mid-season benching like a true team leader, then came back and played his heart out. It would behoove the coaching staff to reward a kid like that with something. Keep up the great work -- Go Irish!Andrew
Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Andrew. Prince Shembo ended up winning the defensive player of the year honors, with Fox and Chris Watt sharing the Nick Pietrosante Award (courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication). The honor seems to fit both fifth-year seniors, each of whom had to deal with different problems during their final year at Notre Dame. As you mentioned, Fox led the team in tackles (90) and seemed to turn a corner after it looked like he would lose his starting job to Jarrett Grace. He also played the Mike and Will inside without complaint, and it certainly seemed like he was playing his best ball of the season in November.
William Wheaton from Illinois writes: Hey Matt, diehard Irish fan here! And my question today is concerned with the departure of both offensive and defensive coordinators, who and when are the Irish going to be after. And with the change imminent, what is it going to do to our offense being Everett Golson is back. Will we still be running the pro-style offense that Tommy Rees has been operating this year or will it be the option attack that Everett Golson led us to the title game with?
Matt Fortuna: William, I highly doubt that Kelly would bring in someone with a completely new idea for the offense considering the success he has had throughout his career, though obviously a Kelly offense will ideally look more like the ones he had at Cincinnati, given that he now has a mobile quarterback seemingly tailormade for the role. I would not be surprised if Kelly put Mike Denbrock and/or Tony Alford in charge of the offense full time, and simply hire a new position coach. The bigger concern would probably be finding the right fit on defense, especially with the likely personnel losses about to come on that side of the ball next year, and especially with so many ties between all of the coaches on that side of the ball.
You had said that you were out of a job before Brian Kelly hired you at Grand Valley. What kind of influence has he been on your career?
“CHUCK MARTIN: Once again, we got to work with some pretty good players. That's the starting point. We're different in a lot of, lot of ways. People that know us know we're pretty different people. But we're similar in a lot of ways when it comes to football, as far as competitiveness and confidence, and then obviously he's been running a program for, not the longest tenure in college, but he's been in charge for a long, long time and just being around him on a daily basis, it's just organizationally, and I always tell people he's the best off-the-field head coach in America. There's so many things that he gets done for the players in this program to make their lives more efficient, to make their lives more enjoyable, that you're always learning those things. That kind of stuff is obviously what I'll move forward with.
Everyone knows I'm a lifelong Notre Dame fan, and that's the only place I ever really wanted to coach, so obviously it's a very difficult decision to not stay there. But for me, for my family, for my career, this was the best move to put me in a position to get to where I want to go at the end of the day.” New Miami (Ohio) coach Chuck Martin
Did you learn even more these last two years, just being on the offensive side of the ball with him and calling the plays and whatnot?
CM: Yeah, I would say more big-picture stuff, too. That's always where I was looking to him, as far as how is he handing certain situations, how is he improving the whole organization, how is he getting things done for the football program, how is he getting things done for our players that gives us a better chance for success. There's only so many ways to run routes and throw, sometimes that can be a little bit overblown. This, that and the other thing. But definitely the big-picture stuff is where you get the most value.
When news of your departure from Notre Dame broke, there were a lot of positive comments from the players -- congrats and whatnot -- on the new gig. What are you going to miss most about that group that you worked with these past couple of years?
CM: These were incredible kids. Obviously they are so much more than football players at Notre Dame. And that's why Notre Dame has so much pride in its student-athletes, because they're truly student-athletes. We watched what they'd go through on a daily grind. It's so impressive. They're awesome kids from awesome families. Whenever you leave a job, you'll miss the school, you miss the people, in particular you miss the players. And they move on and graduate, too. But those are the things that you miss the most — the interaction with the people you work with, and the interaction with the kids you coach. Everyone knows I'm a lifelong Notre Dame fan, and that's the only place I ever really wanted to coach, so obviously it's a very difficult decision to not stay there. But for me, for my family, for my career, this was the best move to put me in a position to get to where I want to go at the end of the day.
The day you took the Miami job, news broke that Everett Golson was going to be re-admitted to Notre Dame. I'm just curious about what your relationship with him has been like and what kind of impression he left on you with the way he was able to recover these last couple of months and do what he needed to do to get back on track?
CM: Just very proud of him. He's my guy, and I enjoyed all my time with him when he was there. I even enjoyed my time with him when he was a little bit afar. I'm just proud of how he's grown over the last few years, and he's an awesome kid with an awesome heart, and just figuring his way. He's already done so many special things at Notre Dame, and I know he's going to do a bunch more special things in his last couple of years. But very proud of how he handled it, and how he really started to take a situation that certainly could be a negative and turned it into a positive. And that's what you're always looking for kids to do. Kids don't hit a home run with every decision they make, and when they make bad decisions and they improve from these decisions that's when you know they're really turning into the type of person that they're capable of being.
There are reports of some guys from there possibly playing their fifth years with you. Can you speak to that yet?
CM: I don't know that any of them are really spending a ton of time with that now. I think they've got finals right now and then they've got a bowl game to play. And if down the road they decide that that's something they want to do, obviously if they choose to move on from Notre Dame, I would obviously be interested. But on the other hand, they're just kind of handling their business and finishing their semester and finishing their season. We'll kind of see where that takes us in the future.
ESPN.com caught up with Martin on Monday night. Here is Part I of that conversation.
What have these last two weeks been like for you? I imagine little sleep, a lot of traveling and a lot of meeting with new faces.
Chuck Martin: Yeah, it's been crazy, and obviously there's a lot of things to get up and running, and hiring a staff, and trying to get going in recruiting, and trying to figure out the lay of the land of the place you just got hired. So yeah, it's been good, but like anytime you change jobs it's a little bit of a whirlwind. But you get going and you work as many hours as you can every day, try to get as much stuff you can get done, knowing that you'd like to get more done but it's not going to happen. So you just keep plugging away and keep grinding.
Did you find a house out there yet? How's the living situation going on with the family and everything?
When you first got there and got to meet the players and the personnel, what was your initial impression of what you had to work with?
CM: Well in that case, you never know -- when you don't have as much success as you'd like, there's a lot of different reasons for that. The one thing that I was very, very pleased with was that we have good kids and they like each other. We don't have like a fractured team. There (wasn't) some big issue within the framework of your team, so that's obviously a good starting point. If you have good kids that like each other and they have some resemblance of a team going in, then it's something you can build on and start. And again, for me, we didn't get into a whole lot of what's good, what's bad, what's been done great, what's been done not-so-great. It was just kind of, we're going to put in our own systems, from offseason strength and conditioning to how we handle academic stuff, to obviously new systems on offense and defense, and then we're going to start recruiting kids to our system for the future. But in the short term we're going to try to develop the kids we have and just go full-steam ahead. So we don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out good, bad or indifferent or what we have. We just say, hey, this is our team right now and let's start developing the players and let's get better for next fall.
During your introductory press conference you mentioned Ara Parseghian. Have you two touched base since you took the job?
CM: I have not. I was actually, it's funny, I was at Armando's (barber shop) the day I was taking off and Ara was in there the day before and had told Armando that, 'Hey, we've got to get a good coach at Miami of Ohio.' So just the fact that Ara Parseghian was talking about a job that I was getting ready to take was pretty special for me. It kind of makes you pinch yourself and makes you pretty excited. If this place is important to Ara Parseghian and I'm the one in charge of getting it turned back around, that's pretty awesome.
How have you or will you go about filling out your staff?
CM: We got some guys on board. I think they're releasing them (Tuesday) or (Monday night) at some time. We've got about four or five guys hired and we're in the process of filling our last three or four spots, so we're plugging away. It's something you want to get it working but also, it's like a giant puzzle -- got to get the pieces to fit right. You want to make sure that everybody can complement one another. And some guys hopefully bring some attributes to the table that other guys don't have. So as you start to fill in and then you get to those last couple spots, you might be looking for some key things you don't have yet on the staff to try to fill those keys. But it's a fun process, you'd like it go very quickly, but also you're here for the long term and you want to get the right people to build it the right way.
Your coaching career has been anything but conventional, especially at Notre Dame, moving from safeties coach to offensive coordinator. How do you think having your feet in all of these different spots at all of these different programs is going to help you in running your own program?
CM: Yeah. It started back when I took over for Coach (Brian) Kelly at Grand Valley. Spent 12 years on defense and only coached on defense and I moved to offense then with these days in mind. I'm only 45; I'm hoping I coach a lot longer. My plan back then, it wasn't by accident that I moved to offense. I had a plan that I was going to be a head coach, hopefully for a long time, and that to know both sides of the ball and have true experience on both sides of the ball and not just be a one-dimensional head coach would not only benefit me in running an organization, but also benefit me when I get a job where I can probably add just as much to one side as you can to the other. So obviously going to Notre Dame and having the experience of going as a defense guy and then flipping to offense halfway through, that's why I was excited about the opportunity. You keep growing and learning in college football; you never stop learning. You've got to stay up with all the new wrinkles every day. When you have the experience of bouncing back and forth like I had, you kind of take turns with what everybody's doing, and now I feel obviously that will super benefit me when I get here.
Fifth-year guys. I know Lo (Wood) and Alex (Welch) reportedly are not coming back. What can you share about those conversations you've had with them or any other players? Is there anyone else you know about at this time?
Will those guys remain and practice through the bowl game, or are they kind of out of there the minute they graduate?
BK: I haven't gotten a chance to really talk to them about that yet. We're going to sit down here once I get my schedule set and we begin practice this weekend, I'll have a meeting with all those guys that have asked. The only guy I've talked to is Lo Wood about asking for a release.
Moving forward, Chris Watt, I know he took a pretty nasty hit the other night. What can you share about him?
BK: MCL. He's got a first-degree MCL, so that's, to most people, pretty significant. To Chris Watt, that's a papercut. So he's a pretty tough kid. If he can play, he's going to try to play. The only thing that makes it a little bit more difficult is he's got a torn PCL in the same knee. So he's lost a lot of his stability in that knee. We're going to see how it responds here over the next five-to-seven days. But first-degree MCL.
That's a sprain, I'd imagine?
BK: Yeah that would be a sprain. I'm sorry. That would be a moderate sprain of the MCL.
You've got a while now before you play at home again. How important will it be to resolve whatever issues there are with the playing surface? I know it seems every year like, 'Field Turf could come! Field Turf could come!' What will those conversations be like, if they haven't already taken place?
BK: It is paramount to our home-field situation, relative to playing and continued success. And I think I've put Jack (Swarbrick) out on the spot on this and he's addressed it. He's had a series of meetings and I'm very confident that we're going to have the field situation resolved in a very short period of time.
Speaking of next year, it's rare at least publicly to not have a schedule announced at this point. I'm sure you know a lot more behind the scenes than we do, but when do you expect maybe a public announcement, and how much more involved are you in conversations like this going from your fourth to fifth year now?
BK: Yeah, I'm involved in the schedule. But as you know, the ACC schedule bites a lot of that up and then there's still some long-term commitments going back to Knute Rockne that tie our hands. So when you're locked into some contracts -- Navy for one, Stanford, USC, Purdue. Now you're talking about six ACC games, and then another three or four. It doesn't give me much wiggle room. So as much as I'd like to say that I'm at the forefront of shaping a schedule, there's not a lot of wiggle room in these schedules right now. We're trying to do our best to balance it out, and I think 2014, you're going to see four ACC teams, and then in '15 I think we're going to get to six.
I'm sorry -- six ACC teams you said?
BK: Yeah, we're contracted obviously by the ACC but because of our Arizona State contract, Arizona State has to stay on the schedule, so we're not going to be able to play all of the ACC games next year. So we'll have to add another one in '15.
I'd imagine the conference has been fairly flexible with you guys in working these things out over the last couple of months?
BK: Yeah they have been, in terms of moving from an early game to a late game. And again, from our standpoint, we're still easing into this over the next year in trying to make all of these contracts the were pre-existing work.
Going off that, talking from an administrative standpoint, again, four, going on five years now on the job, what do you find yourself still learning about? How much more proactive have you been in some of these other conversations as it relates to the state of the program? How has each year — whether it's this one, last one, whatever — kind of contributed to that?
BK: I think the biggest piece here is academics and degrees, and we want to make it so we don't have this race to get a degree. We need kids to be pacing themselves to get a degree so we've got a much more mature team. We need a more mature football team. We need guys here for four and five years, and that's something that we have to look at in terms of how many hours our guys are taking and really do a very good job of pacing ourselves in terms of our academic preparedness here. We're moving a little bit to a point where we've got all these guys getting their degrees in three-and-a-half years, and that's great, but we also need a more mature football team. So getting my hands around that balance, academically and athletically, is the next stage of developing consistency in a much more -- we need a more veteran, much more mature football team moving forward.
8-4 is not where you guys want to be. You beat Michigan State, though. You beat Arizona State. You beat USC. What do you take from this season? I know it seems like a lot of the goals, at least from the outside, looked off the table the minute Everett went down. How would you just kind of encapsulate the 12 games you guys played this fall?
BK: We're a couple plays, couple players -- the foundation is solid. We've got enough in place. We need certainly better play at a few positions, but feel really good about the overall strength of the program where you can win games like we've won this year. But certainly consistency at some key positions and continuing to build the depth within the program. But feel good about the overall program. Need to get some key positions to play at a higher level.
Notre Dame's 27-20 loss Saturday night at Stanford completed Brian Kelly's fourth regular season with the Irish, who went 8-4. Now comes the busy time, as he is dealing with recruiting, staff turnover, potential NFL departures on his roster and, most importantly for the immediate future, figuring out where and when the Irish's bowl game will be. (Sorry, Subway alums in New York.)
On Tuesday, Kelly was promoting his involvement Tuesday with the VIZIO BCS National Championship Fan Throwdown contest, and he chatted with ESPN.com. Here is part 1 of that conversation.
(Of note: This interview took place before reports surfaced that Notre Dame lost its offensive coordinator, Chuck Martin, to Miami of Ohio, where he will become the RedHawks' next head coach.)
It's recruiting season, and some of the, relatively speaking, downtime you guys have now between the end of the regular season and the bowl …
BK: Downtime. Yeah, right. It's the busiest time. (Laughs)
Relatively speaking, as I said, what is the timeline now for some of the guys who have NFL decisions to make? What are the processes like with you and Stephon (Tuitt) and Louis (Nix) and whoever else may be thinking about it?
BK: We submit the paperwork to the NFL for their pre-draft status. I like to have that information. Then we put together all their academic work relative to what they may need, what they've taken, all that to make sure that we know exactly where they are academically in terms of pursuing their degree and finishing up their work. And then the third piece is we get a lot of information from third-party contacts that I have, relative to what they may look like next year if they come back. I did that with Manti (Te'o), I did that with Tyler (Eifert), I did that with Michael Floyd and really recruit them back to Notre Dame based upon all the information that we put together. Sometimes it's better that they move on to the NFL. Sometimes it's a better situation for them to stay and have another year here. So we'll put all that together. That's what we're doing. We're compiling that information right now, and we'll meet with them sometime next week.
From your philosophy, do you have a rule of thumb where you say, "Hey, you look like you're going to be a first-round pick. It's probably best if you go." Or is it kind of a more open-minded, two-way street with you?,
BK: No, Manti was really close to being a first-round pick with his pre-draft rating as a junior. He was rated between a first and a third; he wasn't a guaranteed first. Michael was between a one and a three as well. There's no sure things in the first round. Unless you're like Jadeveon Clowney or somebody that you know is going to be a top-five pick, I think we re-recruit you, unless you've already got your degree in hand and we know that with a great certainty you're going to be a No. 1 pick. We try to put the information in front of you that allows you to get your degree and increase your opportunity to help Notre Dame and help yourself for the future.
Between Manti, Michael and a couple of other guys, you've had a lot of success in re-recruiting some of these guys. What's that speak to what you've built in the program here in these four years?
BK: First of all, it's the degree at Notre Dame -- that's huge. Each one is different. Zack Martin was between a second- and a fifth-round draft pick. He could've gone, but he wanted to play with his brother. So I think each one of them has different circumstances, but they enjoy being in the program. So what we've built is an atmosphere and an environment that the guys enjoy being here every day and that speaks to the morale and that speaks to the direction of the program. But there are so many other things here as well in terms of the degree, in terms of being able to come back and know that they're on a great platform at Notre Dame, that if they play well and the team wins it enhances their chance of moving up as well.
BK: I've been assured that based upon all of the information that has been provided that he's going to be re-admitted on Dec. 13, and that information has been provided to admissions and it's just a matter of them sending out the admittance letter and then him being back on campus sometime around the 15th of December.
You've talked about possibly integrating him into bowl practices. What would be the process with that? What would you hope to get out of him in that limited time?
BK: Now that I'm looking at the schedule and the kind of bowls that we're looking at right now, if he comes back on, let's say the 16th, we're not going to practice again because we're leaving probably on the 20th, 21st, somewhere in there. I really don't even think he'll have a chance to practice, now that we're looking at bowl games that are going to be happening before the 29th of December. It's unlikely, given the timetable, that he would even practice.
Can he travel with you guys to the game?
BK: He cannot, no. He cannot travel to a competition site.
Speaking of bowls, what are you thinking of in terms of options here? I know you've said this will be a reward for the seniors; they seem pretty opposed to cold weather. Would that rule out New York? How open-minded is this process right now?
BK: I don't think it's open-minded. I think we've narrowed it down considerably. I'd say there's probably three bowls that we're looking at. But I think we're really down to a narrow focus on the bowl game situations. And again, I think just to give you a bit of an idea, we tie into ACC bowls next year, and so we'll be part of that rotation beginning next year. So we'd like to examine bowls that are not tied into the ACC for one last go-around, and so our focus is on not being tied into some of those ACC games right now. And we'll see how that plays out.
He’s not one to brag or really go that much in depth about his recruiting, but the fact he has Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State already scheduled shows just how high the interest is in those schools.
While there are two more officials to set up, the Crimson Tide, Fighting Irish and Buckeyes are ready to roll out the red carpet for the ESPN 300 senior -- he’s ranked 68th overall and is the No. 1 tight end at the H-position.
Here is a look at all three schools and why each makes sense for the 6-foot-3, 243-pound Luatua:
Notre Dame managed to place two players, Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas, Tuesday on the 37-man watch list for the Mackey Award, which is given to the nation's top tight end.
Not bad for a school that has earned the moniker "Tight End U." over the past few years.
Rival USC was the only other school to land multiple players on the watch list, with Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer notching the honors.
Raw deal for Alex Welch, no?
Still, Koyack and Niklas have just a combined nine career catches for 119 yards and one touchdown, which Niklas grabbed in the Irish's Nov. 10 win at Boston College. The two, along with Welch, have a long way to go to match the production of Eifert, who won the award last season.
No Notre Dame players were on the watch list released Tuesday for The Rimington Trophy, which is given to the nation's top center. Nick Martin had the edge this past spring over Matt Hegarty to replace Braxston Cave in the middle of the Irish's offensive line.
But no teams are perfect (seriously, it hasn't been done since Auburn in 2010-11). So, with 100 days standing between us and the college football season -- and 102 standing between the Irish and their Aug. 31 opener against Temple -- we will take a look at three things the program needs to cross off its checklist this summer.
1. Find offensive playmakers: George Atkinson III bulked up this offseason and did not run for the track team to focus on adding to his workload. He is the most experienced man in an Irish backfield that lost its top two rushers from a season ago, but he will be pushed by redshirt sophomore Amir Carlisle, redshirt freshman William Mahone, junior Cam McDaniel and incoming freshman Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, both of whom are four-star prospects. The three-man battle to replace Tyler Eifert at tight end, meanwhile, will be waged among Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack and Alex Welch.
2. Integrate incoming freshmen: Bryant and Folston are two of the incoming freshmen who appear ready-made for the college level. Linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety Max Redfield figure to see time as freshmen, too. Early enrollee receivers such as Corey Robinson and James Onwualu, both of whom saw added time following the spring departures of Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, also may see playing time.
3. Stay levelheaded. This really shouldn't be much of a problem for a program and players who seemingly always have the bull's-eye on their back, regardless of the win-loss record. Still, a renaissance 2012 campaign and a return to college football's elite will only up the ante for this group to do similar things this fall, especially with so many pointing to Alabama's title-game rout as a sign that 2012 may have been a fluke.
2. New play-caller. Chuck Martin will take on an even bigger role this season offensively. The former Brian Kelly successor at Grand Valley State-turned-Irish safeties coach-turned offensive coordinator is adding new duties to his plate in 2013: play-calling. Kelly hopes the delegation will allow himself to be more hands-on with the entire team on game day and not get lost in the emotions of play-to-play. Martin and quarterback Everett Golson's relationship has grown after the signal caller's first year as a starter, as the two occasionally play basketball together and communicate much better.
3. Tyler Eifert's not walking through that door. Tight End U might be without its usual flair early this season, as a trio of players fight for extended playing time after being limited physically (Alex Welch) or as simply blockers (Ben Koyack, Troy Niklas) in the past year while Eifert had another strong season. Welch appeared to have the inside track for the No. 2 job last summer before an ACL tear ruined those hopes. The converted linebacker Niklas seemingly has the most upside, and Koyack has the most experience. The three players have combined for 10 career catches and won't be expected to exactly fill the shoes of Eifert (and Kyle Rudolph before him, and John Carlson before him, and Anthony Fasano before him) from Day 1, but watching who emerges from that group this season will be telling for the Irish's future at that position.
So yes, Niklas concedes that, just more than halfway through spring ball, there is still a feeling-out period among Notre Dame's tight ends, a trio that will bear large responsibility in one way or another on an offense that returns upward of seven starters but only two of its top six pass-catchers from last season.
"That's a tough question to answer," Niklas said. "But I would say the expectation for our group is just to block when we need to block, catch passes when we need to catch passes and just be as dynamic and aggressive and open to new things as we can and just be really flexible with what we do."
All is up for grabs at tight end, where Eifert re-wrote the school record books in grabbing 140 passes for 1,840 yards during the past three seasons.
The distinction of succeeding a likely first-round pick in Eifert -- and NFL players Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Anthony Fasano before him -- is not lost on this group.
"I wouldn't say it's a pressure, it's kind of like a prestige," Welch said. "You feel good about yourself to be a part of the tight ends at the University of Notre Dame, but at the same time we're not trying to be any of those tight ends; we're going to be ourselves. We lost Tyler Eifert, he's a great tight end. He'll be playing in the NFL. But none of us are trying to replace him. We're just trying to be ourselves and go out there and help the team."
For Welch, that means getting back up to speed after a dream season spent on the sideline. Holding his own in winter workouts was the first big hurdle cleared, and now he is hoping to use the spring to make up for what was lost in a year off the field, with fall camp later serving as the true barometer among his peers.
"You don't really forget, just when you're out there on the field you take for granted certain things," Welch said. "When you get 15 practices under your belt you feel much more comfortable, especially after I got my knee done."
Emerging from the unit as the next future pro is currently off the radar. For now, this spring is simply a start toward filling out one of the offense's biggest holes.
"[Tight ends] coach [Scott] Booker always has high expectations in general," Koyack said, "but I feel like as long as we just do what we're coached to do, we may not be put in the same exact situation as Tyler was put into, but as long as we do well in the situations that we are put into I think that's pretty much the expectations of the group at this point."
Starters returning: T.J. Jones
Players returning: DaVaris Daniels, Davonte' Neal, Daniel Smith, Chris Brown, Justin Ferguson, Luke Massa, Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack, Alex Welch
Players departing: Robby Toma, John Goodman, Tyler Eifert, Jake Golic
Newcomers: James Onwualu, Corey Robinson, William Fuller, Torii Hunter Jr., Mike Heuerman, Durham Smythe, Jacob Matuska
The breakdown: The biggest hole will clearly be left by Eifert, who broke a number of records at Tight End U. Watching the development of the converted linebacker Niklas, along with the growth of Koyack and recovery of Welch (ACL tear), is important to keep an eye on.
Still, Notre Dame has to feel pretty good about what they return among their pass-catchers, especially in light of the Discover BCS National Championship. Jones and Daniels were two of the few who brought their A-games on Jan. 7 against Alabama, and both look like legitimate go-to options heading into 2013. Expect to see plenty of Everett Golson-to-Daniels connections over the next three years.
Neal is an interesting prospect considering he spent the majority of his freshman season simply waving the fair catch signal. He was ESPN's No. 8 overall prospect for a reason, and he should have the chance to show off his athleticism in the slot more now with Toma out of the picture. Brown, meanwhile, made arguably the biggest offensive play of the year for the Irish and, because of his speed, is someone defenders need to keep a close eye on whenever he takes the field.
Onwualu and Robinson enrolled in January and should have a leg up on the other newcomers when fall camp commences.