Containing Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert will be one of the main focuses for Nick Saban and Alabama's defense in the BCS national title game.
In the second edition of my series that delves into the personnel matchups between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Alabama Crimson Tide, I will take a look at the pass-catching units for both clubs.
While I broke down the similarities in the backfields of the nation’s top two teams in a previous article, the receiver and tight end units appear to be the most diverse when paired against one another.
Brian Kelly’s aerial attack relies heavily around the talents of tight end Tyler Eifert—the recent recipient of the Mackey Award given to the nation’s top tight end.
Meanwhile, Nick Saban’s go-to receiver—freshman sensation Amari Cooper—was playing in high school at this time last year.
What problems does each group pose for defenses, and what adjustments can be made to prevent them from making big plays?
Find out as I go inside the matchup by comparing the wide receivers and tight ends for both the Crimson Tide and the Fighting Irish.
After a phenomenal debut campaign that saw him finish seventh in the SEC in receiving yards (895), Cooper is unquestionably the go-to target for quarterback AJ McCarron.
With second-leading receiver Kenny Bell unlikely to play against the Irish due to injury, junior Kevin Norwood (26 receptions, 395 yards, four touchdowns) and sophomore Christion Jones (25 receptions, 328 yards, four touchdowns) will flank Cooper as capable targets for McCarron.
In particular, Norwood (four catches for 78 yards in last season’s title game) has shown the tendency to play at his best in big games.
Notre Dame’s receiver unit is led by junior TJ Jones—who has amassed 104 catches for 1,231 yards and 10 touchdown receptions over his career.
While Jones isn’t the physical freak former Irish star Michael Floyd was, he is a dependable target for Everett Golson and is capable of doing damage in the open field once he gets the ball in space.
Like Bell, Notre Dame is dealing with an injury to its No. 2 receiver—with the status of sophomore DaVaris Daniels listed as questionable for next month’s title game, per USA Today.
Seniors Robby Toma and John Goodman—who have combined to record 31 receptions this season—round out the receiver rotation for the Irish.
Eifert has been a safety valve all season long for Irish quarterback Everett Golson, and he leads the team in receptions (44), yards (624) and touchdowns (four).
The 6’6”, 251-pound senior is a matchup problem considering that he is too fast to be covered by linebackers and too big for corners and safeties.
Alabama has not featured the tight end this season compared to previous years (tight ends accounted for 54 receptions in 2011 as opposed to 27 this season), but fifth-year veteran Michael Williams has proven to be a reliable target as a receiver and a bruising blocker in the run game.
Cooper has everything you could possibly want in an elite receiver—he’s got size (6’1”, 198 pounds), speed and the ability to high-point the ball in the air. He can also make plays in space.
Forget age when discussing him, because he will easily be the most complete talent and the biggest playmaker at receiver that takes the field for either team on Jan. 7.
Norwood and Jones have shown flashes of brilliance this season, but neither has been able to consistently make plays like Cooper.
But both of them are capable of stepping up in a game of this magnitude.
For the Irish, Jones is a proven receiver that keeps opposing safeties honest and unable to cheat toward Eifert.
Eifert is another example of the recent trend of getting big and athletic tight ends and using them all over the field in an effort to create mismatches—which Kelly and his staff have done an excellent job of utilizing this season.
Getting Daniels back—who is the team’s third-leading receiver this season—would be a huge plus and give the Irish another playmaker on the outside.
Additionally, running back Theo Riddick—who started at receiver for the Irish previously in his career and has 35 catches this season—is a huge threat out of the backfield.
The main slight on both of these units may be depth, considering the injuries both teams have absorbed this season.
Alabama has lost Bell and DeAndrew White—both of whom have been starters for the Tide in their respective careers.
With numbers at receiver potentially being an issue, McCarron may be forced to rely on Williams and running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon (who combined to grab 30 receptions for 303 yards and two scores this season) more so than usual.
For the Irish, outside of Jones and Eifert, the case can easily be made that Riddick is their biggest weapon as a pass-catcher.
Alabama has struggled in the secondary as of late, particularly with deep throws on the outside.
However, there are reservations as to whether Golson and this receiving group can make them pay in a similar manner to how LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia were able to do.
To slow down Alabama’s aerial attack, the focus must be on slowing Cooper down by any means necessary.
Considering that the rest of the Tide’s receiving unit accounted for five catches that netted just 34 yards against Georgia in the SEC title game, Cooper (who had eight catches for 128 yards and hauled in the game-winning score) has shown the ability to almost single-handedly take over in big games.
With the Tide’s depth issues, it may be wise for Bob Diaco to slide a safety over to the star freshman’s side in hopes of keeping him from busting a big play.
While that may open the door for other receivers and backs to make plays, none of Alabama’s other playmakers has proven to be a consistent threat in the passing game.
The same treatment can be applied in the case of Eifert for Alabama’s defense.
Whereas Cooper can stretch a defense vertically on the outside, the challenge with Eifert is protecting the middle of the field.
Alabama’s athletic group of linebackers will have to step up in coverage in the flats and in the middle of the field—with C.J. Mosley being the main figure that excels in those situations.
While the Tide’s secondary has struggled in giving up big plays over the last month of the season, the fact that Notre Dame does not have a game-breaker on the outside could play into the hands of Saban and Kirby Smart.