SOUTH BEND – It has been quite the football season for Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert – a journey that he terms “bizarre.”
A year ago, Eifert was an injured (back) freshman tight end who wasn't allowed to play. This season, the Bishop Dwenger graduate not only played, but starred for the Fighting Irish (7-5).
“I think it is so bizarre that it really doesn't hit you until maybe later looking back on it,” Eifert said in reflecting on his rise to stardom. “I'm just living in the present and enjoying the experience.”
Entering training camp in August, every football fan (including many NFL scouts) was very aware of Notre Dame All-American candidate Kyle Rudolph. The junior tight end was ranked among the best football players – regardless of position – in the country. Eifert was simply in a mix of players vying to be Rudolph's back-up. But Eifert's evolution as a player began to show in August camp.
“To be honest, no,” Eifert said of envisioning a prominent role this fall. “I viewed (Rudolph) as the number one guy and I'd play sparingly.”
First-year coach Brian Kelly took notice early that Eifert was outplaying seniors Bobby Burger and Mike Ragone and that the sophomore would be a quality back-up to Rudolph.
“Going from thinking that you aren't even going to play to catching touchdowns is (weird),” Eifert said. “A lot has happened in the past year.”
Rudolph was hobbled throughout the early parts of the season with a hamstring problem, so Eifert got an inordinate amount of repetitions during the week, but was limited on game days. Through the first six games of the season he managed just one reception and played in four of those games. But that all changed following the Pittsburgh game in October.
Rudolph severely injured his hamstring in that game and was ruled out for the season. From that point forward, Eifert made his work in practice pay dividends on Saturdays.
The 6-foot-6 receiver hauled in 22 receptions and a pair of touchdowns over the ensuing six games, including a pair of spectacular catches against Army in Yankee Stadium last month.
Rudolph is in the process of evaluating whether to declare for the 2011 NFL Draft. Prior to Eifert's development, the thought of losing Rudolph was terrifying to Irish fans. Now it appears that Notre Dame could utilize both next season, though the program won't collapse at the tight end position if Eifert is “the guy.”
“It's a big decision to make,” Eifert said of his friend and teammate possibly leaving Notre Dame. “He wants to make sure that he makes the right one. With being injured, (Rudolph) wants to make sure that he's healthy enough to go where he wants (in the Draft). But I hope to have him back here.”