Notre Dame Football: Tyler Eifert

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Scott Booker and his players take a lot of pride in the tradition of excellence their group has produced. But despite Tight End U facing more uncertainty at the position than in recent memory, Booker, the Notre Dame tight ends coach, does not find himself having to explain the legacy that this relatively young unit is trying to carry on.

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Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesBen Koyack emerged as a receiving option last season, setting himself up for a breakout season as a junior.
"When they come here and they get recruited, it's easy to know about Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Anthony Fasano, Mark Bavaro back in the day," Booker said. "And obviously now recently, Tyler (Eifert), Kyle and Troy (Niklas). That's easy. That's what you do in recruiting, you do your homework.

"And when you do your homework as a tight end, coming out of high school, if you want to be successful, if you want to be on national TV every day and you want to catch a lot of balls and you want to have an opportunity to go to the league, I don't know what place is better. So you don't have to tell them where they're at."

Niklas' surprising early departure to the NFL put the Fighting Irish's tight ends on a learning curve this spring. Ben Koyack was forced into the No. 1 spot, with redshirt freshmen Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe behind him. Freshmen Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua will arrive this summer.

Koyack has drawn plenty of praise for the way he has carried himself among the youngsters since assuming his new role atop the depth chart.

"I think just the way he's coming every day prepared, ready to go," Booker said. "Watching the film before we watch the film as a unit. Talking to the guys, talking to Mike Heuerman, going out and eating with those guys. And just showing them how to be Notre Dame football players, and specifically Notre Dame tight ends, and the expectations that are put on us on a day-in, day-out basis. In all those facets he's been doing a better job continuing to grow."

Booker didn't want to compare Koyack to anyone before him, but the Oil City, Pa., native spoke with a renewed sense of confidence early in the spring, which can likely be attributed to his strong finish to the 2013 season. As a No. 2 tight end who was relegated to mostly blocking duties for much of last season, Koyack recorded 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns, with all of those catches but a 19-yard scoring strike coming during the Irish's final six games.

Notre Dame is hoping that such improvement can have a trickle-down effect throughout the unit. Heuerman, who saw his redshirt all but confirmed early last season after having surgery to repair a hernia, is looking to add more weight, with the 225-pounder saying he sees himself adding 15 more pounds.

"It's all about making plays at the end of the day, and that's what I know I have to do," Heuerman said. "And now that Troy's gone, it kind of opens the door for someone to step in, so I'm excited to be able to be here now competing for that position and be here for summer and going to camp and (at the) end of the season still competing and making plays and doing what I do best, so I look forward to that."

Notre Dame mailblog

March, 14, 2014
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Enjoy the weekend, gang. Any other questions or comments? Tweet 'em or drop 'em in the mailbag.

Dan Maine from Camp LeJeune, N.C., writes: Hey Matt, longtime reader and big time ND fan. Quick question, this year being the last ND vs. Michigan game is there anything special Notre Dame has planned for the game like Michigan did last year?

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Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsThe Irish and Wolverines will face off this season for the last time in the foreseeable future.
Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Dan. Are you referring to Devin Gardner being given the No. 98 legends jersey in honor of Tom Harmon? I'd imagine Notre Dame isn't doing anything like that, neat as that was. But I'm sure the atmosphere and intensity will be charged up just a bit for the last scheduled meeting between these two rivals -- under the lights, no less. (Maybe the Irish will have a retort to the "Chicken Dance" if they win? Or perhaps Troy Niklas can return for the pep rally, rip his shirt off and declare his love of pain, as he did the night before the Michigan game two years ago?)


Mike S. from Chicago writes: Hi Matt, great work as always! My question -- the 2014 schedule. Always a hot topic. One could make an argument that the Irish have only 3 "true" road games upcoming. But wouldn't they be just about the 3 toughest road games imaginable in the country? If not, certainly the toughest 3 road games in a 6-game stretch in the country I'd say. But, as a fan, I'm glad these games are happening in the second half of the season as opposed to the first. From both a ranking opportunity standpoint and from a "giving the team time to gel" standpoint. Agree?

Matt Fortuna: Forget about you, Mike; I'm just glad they're all in good weather! But yes, it's difficult to imagine a tougher game than a visit to Florida State, the likely preseason No. 1 team who may very well be undefeated come Oct. 27. Trips to USC and Arizona State won't be easy, either, though the potential difficulty of both of those games remains to be seen. More to your point, though, yes -- it is not impossible to imagine the Irish taking advantage of the timing and getting off to a 6-0 start. And if a young team can clear the first half of its schedule unscathed, well, it can start to believe anything, which would add a whole 'nother level of intrigue to that date in Tallahassee.


Matt from Pittsburgh writes: Hey Matt love your work covering ND, so I'm visiting ND for the first time for the blue/gold spring game on 4-12. What things would you recommend seeing doing while there? Thanks!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Matt. First and foremost I'd recommend checking out The Grotto, especially if you're with family. I took my mother there on her first visit and she nearly shed a tear. I'd also do a lot of walking around outside the stadium for tailgates and other extra curriculars before and even during the game, as it's the spring game and the game-like atmosphere is much more of the event than the actual game itself (though still considerably toned-down from the fall). Any other suggestions for Matt from Pittsburgh, gang? Drop 'em here and I'll pass them along.


Kurt Weidmann from Sacramento, Calif., writes: Matt, Thanks for your coverage of ND football! Nice work. Yes, as you mention in one of your recent articles, ND has been Tight End U., as of late, Niklas, Tyler Eifert, Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Anthony Fasano. But, you really REALLY need to give some love out to the ten year period at Tight End U., from 1974-1984, that included Ken MacAfee (College Football HOF, All-American, 3rd in Heisman voting), Dave Casper (All-American, All-Pro, both College and Pro HOF, Super Bowl Champion) and Mark Bavarro (All-American, All-Pro and Super Bowl Champ). Not bad eh! Thanks in advance!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Kurt. No kidding, though that was way before my time. Tough to find a way to include all of those guys in a short article, but something tells me that Ben Koyack does not need to extend his research all that far back to understand just how big the shoes he is filling are.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The first reaction, like that of most others, was a bit of shock. Then the personal ramifications set in for Ben Koyack.

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Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesBen Koyack will get his chance as Notre Dame's tight end this fall.
Troy Niklas was gone a year earlier than expected, Tight End U. was in need of a new face and, well, who better to step up than a rising senior who saw his production jump down the stretch last season.

"Yeah, I'm the oldest guy in the group, and I'm a guy I feel that the younger guys respect," Koyack said when asked if he felt like a No. 1 tight end. "And that's something I feel like definitely makes me comfortable out there."

Notre Dame will turn to Koyack now to be the next-in-line at its position of strength, following Niklas, Tyler Eifert, Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Anthony Fasano. Of Koyack's 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns last season, all but a 19-yard scoring grab came during the Irish's final six games. The primary blocker in two-tight end sets knows he'll be asked to do more now, and he knows the example he sets this season can pay dividends beyond 2014.

"It just meant to me that I really need to step up," Koyack said. "It's no longer just, 'OK, I've got to be good for that role and just know what the No. 1 guy does.' I've got to be able to do it. I've got to be able to do it in my sleep. I've got to be able to show all the younger guys. I've got to be able to draw it up. It was more or less knowing that I have to accept all the responsibilities that could be thrown on me."

He has taken on a stronger leadership role, shooting text messages to redshirt freshman Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe and inviting them to his room to review plays. And while he says he's more focused on doing whatever is required of him in 2014, he is well aware of what he is stepping into: A lineage that, this May, could see a fifth straight Irish starting tight end taken in the NFL draft's first two rounds.

"You don't come here unless you want to do that," Koyack said of being a starter. "Coming here a freshman, every one wants to get out here and be that No. 1 guy, especially with the reputation like we have. That's pretty much the reason I came here, to have that role. It's something I do definitely look forward to."
Notre Dame is one of the most storied programs in college football, with a recruiting reach that spans nationwide. Since the beginning of the ESPN Recruiting Nation era in 2006, the Fighting Irish have experienced their fair share of ups and downs, but they have continued to make their presence known on the recruiting trail and brought some good talent to South Bend, Ind.

Below are Notre Dame’s top five recruits over this eight-year span, based on the prospect’s projection out of high school along with his actual college impact and production. Moving forward, the Fighting Irish could have some of their more recent recruiting targets compete for a spot on this list.

Ultimate 300: ND's top recruits

January, 30, 2014
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RecruitingNation recently took on the ambitious project of ranking the top 300 prospects since it started evaluating high school players in 2006.

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
AP Photo/Joe RaymondManti Te'o ranks No. 7 overall in the Ultimate ESPN 300.
The criteria:
For the Ultimate ESPN 300 ranking, we incorporated both the prospect's grade and projection out of high school with his actual college impact and production. In the interest of objectivity, we also included prospects that were not included in our rankings. However, we did not include players we did not evaluate in high school, so there are notable names left off this list, like Michael Crabtree.

The 2014 class was not included. Freshman prospects from the 2013 class who had significant roles and who project similar production in the years to come were incorporated. And the schools listed are the ones the recruits initially committed to, so be warned, Irish fans, there may just be a name or two here who brings up bad memories.

Notre Dame had 13 commits make the list, including two in the top 50, Manti Te'o and Golden Tate.

7) Manti Te'o, OLB, Class of 2009: 2
RecruitingNation scouting report: Te'o appears to be a man among boys on film, a player whose physical weaknesses are difficult to spot. Plays fast and with great intensity. Fills inside with a good base and shows great power and strength when taking on pulling linemen and fullbacks at the point of attack. Full report
College accolades: Unanimous All-American. Walter Camp national POY. Heisman runner-up. Winner of Nagurski, Bednarik, Butkus, Lott and Lombardi awards. Career statistics (4 years): 437 total tackles, 34 TFL, 8.5 sacks, 7 INTs.

41) Golden Tate, WR, Class of 2007: 11
RecruitingNation scouting report: Tate is one of the best overall athletes in this entire class and could be an impact player at the college level at multiple positions. However, his outstanding blend of speed, quickness, instincts and ball skills will likely have every coach placing him at cornerback or wide receiver. Full report
College accolades: Biletnikoff Award winner. Unanimous All-American. Career statistics (3 years): 157 rec., 2,707 yards, 26 TDs, 3 rush TDs, 1,196 return yards.

As for the rest of the Irish contingent:

54) Michael Floyd, WR, Class of 2008: 29
62) Louis Nix, DT, Class of 2010: 64
101) Tyler Eifert, TE, Class of 2009: NR
111) Jaylon Smith, OLB, Class of 2013: 13
115) Eddie Vanderdoes, DT, Class of 2013: 10
122) Sam Young, OT, Class of 2006: 19
245) Shaquelle Evans, WR, Class of 2009: 40
254) Tarean Folston, ATH, Class of 2013: 66
255) Stephon Tuitt, DE, Class of 2011: 90
265) Jimmy Clausen, QB, Class of 2007: 8
277) Kyle Rudolph, TE, Class of 2008: 105
For three years, Brian Kelly had success like few others in recruiting players back to school. Sure, Kyle Rudolph left after Year 1 of the Kelly era, but since then the Notre Dame coach had successfully gotten Michael Floyd, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Louis Nix and Zack Martin to come back to the Irish for their fourth (and, in Martin's case, fifth) seasons of college ball.

That changed drastically this season. With several highly projected underclassmen on their roster, the Irish figured to say goodbye to one or two underclassmen early. And even when Kelly said in late December that he had submitted paperwork to the NFL advisory board for Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, few expected all three to leave school early.

Then January came along, and within one week's span, all three players declared for the draft, choosing to avoid the recent trend and skip their final seasons. Each had his reasons, so here's a look at the trio and a look at who on the Irish roster will be tasked with filling the big shoes in 2014.

(Worth noting: Nix, who had a fifth season of eligibility available to him in 2014, is not included in this group, because he graduated in December.)

Leaving: Stephon Tuitt
Replacement: Isaac Rochell
The outlook: It is worth noting that Justin Utupo will return for a fifth year and that veterans Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Chase Hounshell (shoulder) are expected to be back at full health next fall after both missed the 2013 season. Together, all will be counted on to replace the production of Tuitt, who was one of the best pass-rushers in school history. Still, if the Irish are looking for a youngster to step up, they will turn to Rochell, who ended up seeing much more playing time as a true freshman than initially expected this past fall, given the injury bug that affected the Irish in the trenches. ESPN's No. 139 overall player from the class of 2013 played in 11 games, recording 10 total tackles. The 6-foot-3.5, 280-pounder is a far cry from the 6-foot-6.5, 312-pound Tuitt physically, but most typically are. The bottom line is Tuitt will be the hardest of Notre Dame's early departures to replace, but Rochell will probably see his role increase the most in his sophomore season. Junior Sheldon Day, entering his second year as a starter, will be counted on even more this coming fall as well.

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Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCam McDaniel (33) led the Irish with 705 rushing yards in 2013.
Leaving: George Atkinson III
Replacement: Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant
The outlook: Atkinson should be the easiest of the early departures to replace, as his playing time and production took a big dip late during this past season. He was ultimately suspended for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for what Kelly called a violation of team rules, a violation that Atkinson later tweeted (and then deleted) consisted of him texting during a team meal. Still, the Irish have the always-reliable McDaniel back for another year, and the Coppell, Texas, native actually had more carries (152-93) and rushing yards (742-583) than Atkinson in 2013 while helping with kick-return duties as well. The most important developments to keep an eye on, though, are those of Folston and Bryant, both of whom came to Notre Dame as highly touted four-star backs expected to deliver immediate boosts. Bryant had trouble gaining playing time early and ultimately suffered a knee injury that forced him to take a medical redshirt, but Folston came on strong late in the season, finishing with 88 carries for 470 yards and three touchdowns. Things will be tougher next season with a rebuilt offensive line, and all of these backs need to improve as pass-catchers, but there remains plenty of promise in the fold. Let's not rule out redshirt junior Amir Carlisle, either.

Leaving: Troy Niklas
Replacement: Ben Koyack
The outlook: Niklas, who began his career at linebacker, played tight end at Notre Dame for just two years, coming on this past fall after the departure of Eifert, as he hauled in 32 passes for 498 yards and five touchdowns. He was improving as a blocker and was on track to become one of the best tight ends in the country next season. Now Koyack will be tasked with a bigger workload in his senior season. He, too, came on strong late last season, finishing with 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns, though he often played in two-tight-end sets with Niklas and gave the Irish plenty of offensive flexibility.
If the early forecasts are any indication, Notre Dame could have its most successful NFL draft in two decades.

Mel Kiper Jr. released his initial mock draft this week , and three Irish players make the first round.

Louis Nix leads the trio at No. 15 (Pittsburgh Steelers), with Zack Martin (No. 20, Arizona Cardinals) and Stephon Tuitt (No. 23 Kansas City Chiefs) not far behind.

Notre Dame has not had three players drafted in the first round since 1994, when Bryant Young (No. 7, San Francisco 49ers), Aaron Taylor (No. 16, Green Bay Packers) and Jeff Burris (No. 27, Buffalo Bills) all were taken that early.

The Irish did land two players in the first round two years ago, when Michael Floyd (No. 13, Cardinals) and Harrison Smith (No. 29, Minnesota Vikings) were taken on Night 1.

With Tyler Eifert having been taken No. 21 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals last year, Notre Dame is on track to go three straight years with at least one first-round draft pick.
At first it looked like 2013 was the curse. Now? It may just be the month of January.

Rip the page out of your calendar and throw it in the dumpster. Never speak of it again in or around South Bend, Ind. The month has been beyond bad to Notre Dame the last two years, and the worst part is that three more weeks remain between now and February.

From the Alabama beatdown to the Brian Kelly/NFL flirtation, from the Manti Te'o fiasco to all of the craziness that followed in the ensuing weeks, last January was one to forget for the Irish. Now comes a trio of underclassmen departures, plus a fresh academic issue surrounding the Irish's top returning receiver, who will miss spring ball.

To be clear, early defections to the NFL happen regularly around big-time programs. And the odds of a talent like Stephon Tuitt returning for one more year always seemed slim to none anyway. The writing was on the wall with George Atkinson III, while the Troy Niklas news was the biggest surprise, mostly because Brian Kelly had a remarkable track record at Notre Dame of re-recruiting players to get their degrees -- Michael Floyd, Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Louis Nix and Zack Martin among them. (Kyle Rudolph, after Year 1 with Kelly, was the only early departure until this offseason.)

Still, throw the three announcements within a five-day span -- during the first official week of the college football offseason, no less -- and it is easy to understand the fan base freakout. Add in DaVaris Daniels' school suspension this spring for an academic issue, and this is really a lot to digest at once.

Daniels is the biggest surprise, though the redshirt sophomore did his best to quell everyone's worst fears by tweeting that he is not joining the early departures in the pros. Still, for a talented wideout whom Kelly always said needed to work on the little things, missing spring ball will hurt.

Especially as he was set to enter as the Irish's leading returning receiver. Especially as there is now no Niklas to fill the void. Especially as QB Everett Golson returns, two seasons after he developed a quick, reliable connection when the two were redshirt freshmen in 2012.

For now, Notre Dame must hope the early wave of harsh news is the only rush between now and national signing day. Kelly, one of last year's mysteries at this time, has no NFL contact that anyone currently knows about. Golson, the biggest headliner of a bad 2013, is already set to return to classes this month after his fall exile.

New coordinators will come -- eventually, we think -- and new players will follow next month.

Until then, as most Irish fans have come to expect in the depths of winter, bundle up. Just don't hibernate, because things should turn around soon.

At this point, they have to, don't they?
What had been expected throughout the past month finally became official on Sunday when Stephon Tuitt declared for the NFL draft.

The move, while not surprising, is a major blow to Notre Dame's defensive line, which also loses nose guard Louis Nix to the pros, where he, like Tuitt, figures to be taken in the first round.

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AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIStephon Tuitt led Notre Dame in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (9) in 2013.
Throw in the early entry of USF junior end Aaron Lynch, and the early parts of the draft could see three different former Irish defensive linemen hear their names called.


Tuitt became just the second player during Brian Kelly's four-year tenure to leave for the NFL before graduating, joining Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. Before, Kelly's program had successfully re-recruited the likes of Nix, Zack Martin, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd.

Kelly had said that Tuitt received a second-round grade from the NFL advisory committee, though ESPN's Scouts Inc. rates Tuitt as the No. 11 overall player for the 2014 draft.

Tuitt had told the Notre Dame student newspaper, The Observer, back in October that he planned to return for his senior season, though he later said that he misspoke. He recently said that he was about a year away from graduating, and his mother had spoken strongly about the importance of his degree. But a rising stock and the departure of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to UConn were likely too much to overcome in the end.

"I'm ready to take my game to the next level and do what what I love to do -- play football, compete and have fun," Tuitt told ESPN's Joe Schad.

Tight end Troy Niklas and running back George Atkinson III were the other two underclassmen whose paperwork Kelly had sent to the NFL advisory committee. Niklas received between a second- and a fourth-round grade, his father, Don Niklas, told ESPN.com. But Don said that the plan is for Troy to return to Notre Dame for his senior year and receive his degree.

The future of Atkinson remains less clear after he was suspended from the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for what Kelly said was a violation of team rules. Atkinson tweeted, and quickly deleted, that he was suspended for texting during a team meal. Kelly said after the game that he had not decided what effect the discipline would have on Atkinson's future with the program.

As for Tuitt, the leap to the NFL leaves the Irish thin up front, as they lose a mammoth pass-rusher who started all 13 games in a season that saw the line decimated by injuries. Tuitt battled through those himself, recovering from offseason sports hernia surgery and the added weight that came from that — in addition to an early-season back issue — to lead the team in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (9). He added his second career touchdown, too — picking off Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner in the end zone — after returning a fumble 77 yards for a score in the 2012 opener against Navy.

The 6-foot-6, 312-pounder notched 12 sacks in 2012, 1.5 off Justin Tuck's school single-season record, and he leaves Notre Dame with 21.5 career sacks, just three off Tuck's school record.

Underclassmen reserves Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones saw extended playing time this season because of injuries in front of them, and they gained experience that will serve even more beneficial moving forward -- when they will be asked to do much more in 2014.

Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Chase Hounshell (shoulder) meanwhile, are both currently on track to return this fall, adding depth to a unit that sorely needs it. Starting end Sheldon Day returns for his junior year as well and will enter the season as the marquee man up front, this after entering 2013 as the seemingly unknown commodity next to future draft picks Tuitt and Nix.

Tuitt receives second-round NFL grade

December, 26, 2013
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Brian Kelly revealed on Christmas Eve that junior defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt received a second-round grade from the NFL advisory committee, telling IrishIllustrated's Tim Prister that he sat down with Tuitt to discuss options (subscription required), with a decision coming sometime after Saturday's New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

Tuitt has until Jan. 15 to make a decision on the NFL and has most recently said he is "50/50" on whether or not to leave Notre Dame.

Recovering from offseason hernia surgery and dealing with early-season back problems, Tuitt has still managed to be the Irish's most consistent defensive lineman, starting all 12 games and tallying six sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hurries while forcing one fumble and recording a pick-six in Week 2 at Michigan.

The 6-foot-7, 312-pound Monroe, Ga., native has 20 sacks for his career, just 4.5 off Justin Tuck's school record.

The second-round grade is a bit surprising considering the junior is ranked as the No. 8 overall draft-eligible player by Mel Kiper Jr. and No. 11 by Scouts Inc.

Fellow Notre Dame defensive lineman Louis Nix, a redshirt junior, is already NFL-bound after signing with agents. As BlueandGold.com's Lou Somogyi notes (subscription required), the potential return of Tuitt, coupled with quarterback Everett Golson's re-enrollment, could compare to the bowl-season boost the Irish received two winters ago, when Manti Te'o and Tyler Eifert both decided to return to school. Golson and Tuitt, like Te'o and Eifert before them, would be the Irish's unquestioned best players on each side of the ball, though Tuitt's future at Notre Dame remains very much up in the air.
Here is Part 2 of our conversation with Brian Kelly.

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?

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Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesNotre Dame guard Chris Watt injured his knee vs. Stanford.
Brian Kelly: Well, here's what we do. Those guys that have accelerated their academics to get their degree by the end of this year with a year remaining, I meet with all of them and I lay out the fact that they have roles on this team. Each one of them has a role. And they either accept that role or, because they have put themselves in a position where they have their degree, they've essentially increased their options. Some don't have options, right? Some of those guys don't have the degrees, so they have very little option, in terms of, they can only accept their role within the program. Some of these guys have more options. Some of the guys that I think have talked to the media have more options, they can choose to look at other programs. Each one of these guys I meet with, we go over the role that they have in the program, they either accept that role or they choose to, if they can, look at other options. And the two that you mentioned have obviously looked at other options.

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.
Brian Kelly AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillDecember is a busy time of year for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.

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.

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AP Photo/Joe RaymondIt's unlikely that Everett Golson would participate in bowl practices for Notre Dame.
Switching gears a little bit, what do you know or what can you say about the status of Everett Golson right now?

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.

Niklas named Mackey semifinalist

November, 18, 2013
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Troy Niklas received some validation for his breakout season Monday, as the junior was named one of eight semifinalists for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end.

Former Notre Dame tight end and eventual first-round NFL Draft pick Tyler Eifert won the award last season, and was a finalist in 2011.

Niklas, who played linebacker as a freshman in 2011, ranks third on the Irish in both catches (25) and receiving yards (390), and is tied for second with five receiving touchdowns.

The finalists for the award will be announced Nov. 25, with the winner being announced Dec. 11 and presented live on Dec. 12 at the Home Depot College Football Awards show.

The seven other semifinalists are Jace Amaro (Texas Tech), Ted Bolser (Indiana), Eric Ebron (North Carolina), Devin Funchess (Michigan), Gator Hoskins (Marshall), Nick O’Leary (Florida State) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington).
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Troy Niklas had just returned from a week-long senior retreat at Servite (Calif.) High. Family and friends awaited back at the chapel to greet the teenagers. Niklas was among those who spoke upon the group's arrival, and he had his mother, father, sister and sister's boyfriend in the audience.

As he finished his speech, he looked at each in a moment of gratitude.

"Hey Mom," he said, "love ya."

"Hey Dad," he continued, "love ya."

"Hey Tara," he said to his sister, "love ya."

"Hey Shawn," he waved to Tara's boyfriend (and now-husband).

A interminable moment of silence set in, laughter filled up the room and Niklas had, again, captured a crowd with his unmistakable wit.

[+] EnlargeTroy Niklas
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)Troy Niklas enjoyed scoring a touchdown to help the Irish beat USC, his mother's alma mater.
Three years later, not much has changed for the now-6-foot-6½, 270-pound Notre Dame junior. Niklas has been among the Irish's biggest surprises this season, the latest in line at a place that has churned out pro tight ends like few others in recent years. His 20 catches for 328 yards are both third-best on the Irish, and his five touchdown grabs are one fewer than team-leader TJ Jones.

He has opened things up for Notre Dame on the field while keeping the vibe loose off it, be it with his attire or his one-liners, remarks that often relax the sometimes-awkward scene of dozens of reporters huddled around a player nearly twice their size, in search of any bit of information.

"He kind of gets it from his father," quipped Troy's father, Don. "I think a compassionate person is part of it, and that's a huge part of his personality, in terms of he wants people to feel comfortable. I think that is one of the driving forces behind being able to be fun-loving and communicative to a point where he wants other people to feel comfortable."

Niklas has made himself at home all over the field. His high school career featured time as an offensive guard, and he was recruited by Notre Dame as a defensive end. He started one game as a freshman for the Irish at outside linebacker and switched to the other side of the ball before last season, when he bided his time behind eventual first-round pick Tyler Eifert.

"All the other times Troy's just a nice guy, he's a very funny guy, he's always very popular at school and on our team," said Troy Thomas, Niklas' coach at Servite. "But once he got on the field he's just a different guy, he turned it on. He was that way at practice, and he's that way in the games. You just buckle up the chin-strap. He's still going to have fun out on that field, but he's definitely got a different mode to him."

Nicknamed "Hercules" for his physique, Niklas' motor became the source of viral attention this summer when video of him tossing a blocking sled circulated across the internet -- this in the days after the social-media world had become in awe of South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney flipping one with the help of a teammate.

Niklas' feats of strength extend outside campus, with the Fullerton, Calif., native recently spear-heading a team effort for a service project at the South Bend Center for the Homeless, single-handedly raising nearly $3,500. As a senior at Servite, an all-boys Catholic school, he became a prior in the school's Priory program. In charge of roughly 80 kids, Niklas initiated a distribution idea, helping make about 800 goodie bags of toothpaste, toothbrushes, candy bars, first-aid items and pamphlets with religious cartoons to be handed out to homeless people students would pass by on the road.

That same year, Niklas lifted Servite to a 14-1 record and a second straight division title, a run that featured a memorable midseason touchdown off an interception from Mater Dei and future USC quarterback Max Wittek.

A score so memorable that, when prompted about the pick three days before this year's USC game, Niklas livened up an otherwise tight rivalry-week interview session with a much-needed infusion of dramatic color.

"I did," he said of the pick. "And ran it for a touchdown."

"In front of 30,000 fans, too," he added in an overstatement, just warming up.

"And it was on TV," he continued.

"And it was a big rival game."

"Oh, oh, oh, and by the way, we did win that game. But what do I know?"

This dalliance with the media lacked the farcical mustache he had grown out for a brief period of time a year earlier. And though fully clothed -- unlike the pre-Michigan pep rally last year, in which he ripped off his shirt and declared his love for pain -- Niklas' top did not say, "Beef: It's what's for breakfast," the phrase plastered on a shirt he wore to an interview one month earlier.

After the USC game, in which he had four catches for 58 yards and a score, Niklas emerged from the locker room in a flannel button-up, standing out among peers mostly decked in team-issued polos. He joked about having bragging rights over his mom, uncle and many other USC alums in his family.

In closing another exchange with a reporter who had a Spanish accent, Niklas caught everyone off-guard by saying, "Yo soy fiesta," a phrase popularized by New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, seemingly the life of every party.

"It comes very natural for him," Don Niklas said. "He doesn't try to be funny, it's just the way our minds work."

Jones getting back up after each hit

October, 18, 2013
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- TJ Jones was the last Notre Dame player to meet the media this week, anxious reporters a casualty of what has become the senior's weekly routine of receiving a massage every Wednesday or Thursday. Those rubdowns come after practice, which Jones usually prepares for by attending treatment sessions on Sunday or Monday, all so that he can be ready for the running and hitting that awaits in Tuesday's practice.

What that treatment is for usually depends on which body part Jones hurt in the previous Saturday's game -- and if there is a Saturday Notre Dame game, Jones impairing an appendage of some kind is all but certain, even if the extent of the damage is not known in the immediate aftermath.

"Four years ago I would've been looking to miss practice," the senior said. "I would've really just kind of looked for every chance I got to kind of just milk the injury."

[+] EnlargeLamar Dawson
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsNotre Dame wide receiver TJ Jones catches a pass in last year's game against the USC Trojans.
Not anymore, not as one of two Irish offensive captains on a unit still seeking its identity halfway through the season, with rival USC coming to town on Saturday night.

Yes, being Notre Dame's leading receiver and punt returner has taken a toll on a body that the program generously lists at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds. It is a frame that has withstood the beating that comes from being the Irish's go-to threat, from catching 33 passes for 481 yards and four touchdowns, from returning seven punts for 71 yards, and from being targeted countless times more.

"Overall, wide receivers are looked at to be some of the softer people out on the field, but TJ definitely shows that it's just the opposite," freshman receiver James Onwualu, Jones' roommate on road trips, said. "He gets hit a whole bunch in the game -- he's still sticking his head into plays, blocking for our running backs and doing everything he can when he doesn't have the ball as well. I think the toughness that he shows coming back every week to play his best for the team is really unselfish, and it makes him an even better player than he already is."

The most notable of the bruises came early in a Week 2 loss at Michigan, Jones coming down hard and suffering what coach Brian Kelly said the next day was a slight shoulder sprain. He finished with nine catches for 94 yards and a heads-up touchdown in the loss.

Notre Dame's next defeat was hardly kinder to Jones, who rolled an ankle late in the Oklahoma game.

Kelly, who raised a few eyebrows in August by publicly declaring Jones a first-round NFL talent, said the receiver's toughness has been acquired, a byproduct of being thrust into meaningful moments as a true freshman in 2010.

"He has elevated himself in the sense that he now plays with a mental and physical toughness," Kelly said. "There are times where those bumps and bruises that you mentioned -- which affect everybody, right, in this game of college football? -- may have affected him from week to week. It does not affect him now. He fights through them. He's in practice. He's on the ground diving and making catches. He's on the ground more in practice than any of our young freshmen because he's competing all the time.

"These are the marks of great players. Every great player that I've had practices that way. That wasn't the case with him, and he has developed that over his time here at Notre Dame. He's had others to see in terms of he's seen a Michael Floyd in the way they practice, he's seen a Manti Te'o, he's seen a Tyler Eifert and the way they practice. He's obviously at that level."

Jones, who volunteered for the vacant punt return spot this year, calls it all "normal soreness." He says he never let a nick or bump keep him from the practice field earlier in his career, but admitted "if there was something where I didn't have to go as hard, I may have taken a play off or jogged instead of ran full-speed back then."

The son of the late Andre Jones -- an end on the Irish's last national title team -- attributes maturity to his ability to recover so quickly. He has been more proactive over the years, learning to appreciate Notre Dame's athletic training staff more while jumping into the cold tub or onto the masseuse table quicker than he used to.

This past weekend's bye has served as a bit of a welcome reprieve, too.

"I enjoyed it a lot, this is the freshest I've felt since summer," Jones said. "This was the first real break we've gotten since our three-week-long camp this year, which was longer than normal. So this is the first time I'm actually feeling kind of refreshed and really 100 percent."

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