Notre Dame's spectacular 2012 season was not without imperfection. Freshman quarterback Everett Golson did not exactly put up huge numbers in the air. But when he did make passing plays, 6'6" star tight end Tyler Eifert was there to receive.
Eifert—winner of the 2012 Mackey Award—is now a top prospect in the NFL draft, and the Fighting Irish are minus their best receiver.
There has been a lot of talk recently about the transfer of Davonte Neal, but I would like to remind readers that Neal only made a single reception last season for minus-5 yards. So while his loss may be disheartening, it certainly will not have a tangible effect on the teams productivity.
In addition to Neal, fellow wide receiver Justin Ferguson has also decided to transfer. Combine them with Gunner Kiel and cornerback Tee Shepard, and the Irish have lost their top four signees from a 2012 recruiting class that was ranked No. 9 nationally.
Adding to the anxiety for head coach Brian Kelly is the recent injury sustained by junior running back and USC transfer Amir Carlisle, who broke his collar bone and will be out for the rest of spring practice.
Kelly dismissed notions that the injury would keep Carlisle off the field this fall, referring to it as "a minor setback" to Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com.
Indeed, Kelly has high hopes for Carlisle as both a runner and receiver, telling Prister:
Amir has had a great spring. We've seen what we need to see out of him. He'll be a very important player for us in the spring. He's got a gear. He's got a high level where he's really going to be able to help us. He's a very good pass catcher. He's got good ball skills. I could see us getting him on the football field in a number of ways with another running back on the field.
While his primary role is as a rusher, Carlisle's ability to catch the ball makes him a valuable dual threat, and his absence will be felt on the field this spring. One can only hope he avoids another injury, as he has been plagued by them his entire career at Notre Dame.
One player Kelly can count on is T.J. Jones, who equaled Eifert in number of receptions (50) and touchdowns (4) last season. Jones will start at wide receiver along with DaVaris Daniels, who had 31 receptions last season until a shoulder injury during the Boston College game took him out for the rest of the regular season.
So, what are the takeaways from all of this?
1. If Carlisle sustains another season-ending injury, it will be crippling for the offense. His ability to rush the ball will be indispensable to the run game, and his skills as an alternate receiver will keep defenses guessing, easing coverage on the primaries.
2. Jones will have to elevate his game significantly. If one were to add Jones' number of receptions (50) to Eifert's (50), it would still not equal the number of receptions made by USC star receiver Marqise Lee, who caught the ball 118 times last season.
In fairness, the blame for the relatively low number of receptions does not rest solely on Jones' shoulders. Kelly has invested a significant amount of time and resources developing the rushing game, and Golson himself made a decent number of attempts at running the ball (94) last season. This somewhat offsets the numbers of someone like Lee, who played with quarterback Matt Barkley—a traditional pocket-passer.
The fact remains, though, that Jones will need to step it up this fall.
3. Golson will need to improve his accuracy. Kelly will not allow him to make passing plays if the risk of interception is too great—and rightly so.
So, who will fill Eifert's shoes?
The obvious answer is Jones, but he will not be able to shoulder the responsibility left behind by Eifert alone. DaVaris Daniels and Troy Niklas—who will fill Eifert's spot on the depth chart this fall—will both need to elevate their game this fall if the Irish want to improve their passing offense, which is currently ranked 71st in the nation.