When the No. 1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish take on the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide in the Discover BCS National Championship Game on Monday, one of the biggest difference-makers on the field could be Tyler Eifert.
Eifert, this season’s John Mackey Award winner, given annually to the nation’s top tight end, is the latest and possibly the best in a long line of great players Notre Dame has produced at that position.
Notre Dame’s last three starting tight ends –- Anthony Fasano (2003-05), John Carlson (2004-07) and Kyle Rudolph (2008-10) –- are all playing in the NFL, yet no tight end has caught more passes for more yards in Irish history than Eifert.
Most Rec by TE
Notre Dame History
A major reason Eifert could be the player who gives the Crimson Tide defense more fits than anyone else is that Alabama has had issues when its linebackers are forced into pass coverage.
When opposing offenses have lined up in four-or-five-receiver sets against the Tide, they’ve been more effective than in sets with three or fewer receivers.
The numbers are even more telling when you take a look at the five games in which Alabama faced ranked opponents (Michigan, Mississippi State, LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia).
No team was more successful than the Aggies, a natural spread-offense team with a mobile, redshirt freshman quarterback; eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel completed 19 of 23 passes for 184 yards and 2 TD when A&M operated out of a four-or-five-receiver set in a 29-24 upset in Tuscaloosa, the Tide’s only loss of the season.
Alabama Defense by Number of WR
vs Ranked Opponents This Season
In comes Notre Dame, also a natural spread-offense team with a mobile, redshirt freshman quarterback. As a unit, the Irish passing attack is better when operating out of a four-or-five-receiver set.
However, when it comes to Eifert, the senior has been more effective when working out of a set with three or fewer receivers (including him), a formation that usually dictates opposing defenses cover him with a linebacker.
When the Irish had three or fewer receivers on the field and Eifert was the targeted receiver, they completed 25 of 42 passes for 363 yards and four touchdowns.
He was most lethal when Notre Dame operated out of what’s known as “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) and he was the targeted receiver.
In those situations, the Irish were 15-of-23 for 208 yards and a touchdown. But when operating out of a four-or-five-receiver set and Eifert was targeted, Notre Dame was 19-of-33 for 261 yards and no touchdowns.
In other words, Eifert’s presence opened things up for the other receivers.
Therein lies the conundrum for Alabama. What should the Tide do with Eifert?
No one’s had success covering him with a linebacker when the Irish are operating out of “21” (two backs, one tight end) or “11” personnel and rolling the coverage over toward him when they’ve operated from four-or-empty (five-receiver) sets only opened things up for Notre Dame’s other capable pass catchers like TJ Jones, Robby Toma and Theo Riddick when they move him from running back spot and into the slot-receiver position.
It’s a sure bet that Nick Saban is glad to have had the extra time to prepare for this problem.