In the third installment of an eight-part spring practice series, I'll present a detailed look at Notre Dame's tight ends.
Now that former starter Tyler Eifert, last season's Mackey Award winner, has exhausted his collegiate eligibility and taken his talents to the National Football League, the Irish's starting tight end gig is up for grabs.
Whoever earns that distinction will join a tradition of outstanding tight ends, as the Irish's past three starters at the position—Anthony Fasano, John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph—have enjoyed successful NFL careers.
Four candidates will be vying for that honor this spring (I'm not counting former Irish basketball player Joey Brooks), though head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin are enjoy taking advantage of two-tight end sets.
I'll begin with the popular choice to be listed atop the depth chart.
Any time a team can claim that its best all-around athlete plays tight end, opposing defensive coordinators automatically begin to lose sleep at night.
Such was the case with Eifert, and will be again with Niklas.
Niklas' versatility was was evident when the 6'7", 260-pound specimen was moved from his original position of linebacker to tight end during spring ball one year ago. Because that move was not made out of a need for depth, Niklas' potential on the offensive side of the ball can't be undersold.
His figures from 2012 were minimal—five receptions for 75 yards and one touchdown—but that shouldn't discourage Irish fans, as Niklas, who is jovially referred to as "Hercules," was in the midst of learning the intricacies of the position.
If the Servite, Calif., native's mental grasp of the position has caught up to his prolific athletic ability, the Irish will have, perhaps, one of the most dangerous tight ends in college football.
Rated as the nation's 82nd-best player regardless of position in the 2011 class by Rivals.com, Koyack hasn't lived up to the expectations during his first two seasons at Notre Dame.
A quick, agile, pass-catching tight end, Koyack has been the target of many criticisms, many of which are aimed at his poor run-blocking. Arriving at Notre Dame as a 230-pound freshman, the Oil City, Pa., native has bulked up to 253 pounds, but that weight gain hasn't resulted in improvement as a blocker.
That fact points directly to poor technique, which will likely be a strong point of emphasis with tight ends coach Scott Booker during spring ball and fall camp.
Should Koyack display a consistent effectiveness as a run-blocker, the Irish will be able to utilize him in all game situations, rather than simply on obvious passing downs.
Having originally committed to former head coach Charlie Weis, Alex Welch was convinced to remain loyal to Notre Dame by current passing game coordinator Mike Denbrock.
Welch was thought to have had a bright future in the passing game, but redshirting his freshman season and suffering a torn ACL during fall camp last year have significantly altered the path of his career at Notre Dame.
How Welch has recovered from that injury will determine whether he'll be a consistent presence in the rotation during the 2013 season. All signs are pointing to Niklas and Koyack locking up the top two spots at the position, meaning that Welch will need to convince the coaching staff through his play that he is still capable of performing at a high level.
Having enrolled early at Notre Dame, Heuerman is making a serious push at busting into the rotation as a freshman.
The only concern with the Naples, Fla., native is his size, as Heuerman stood a lean 6'4" and hit the scales at 220 pounds as a senior at Barron Collier High School. Adding bulk to his frame will be a necessity for Heuerman to seriously contend for minutes in the fall.
Will Mike Heuerman play as a freshman?
There is much to like about the former 4-star prospect, though.
Heuerman possesses game-changing speed for a player of his size, as witnessed by his time of 4.69 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Now, it must be noted that that drill doesn't always translate to legitimate speed with a helmet and pads on, but it was largely a reason why he could, technically, play as a receiver.