SOUTH BEND – The numbers don't lie when it comes to Tyler Eifert's offensive production this season, regardless of Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's feigned astonishment at questions regarding the topic.
Eifert is generally regarded by oh, everyone, as the best pass-catching tight end in the country. He was voted first-team preseason All-American, but over the past eight quarters, the Bishop Dwenger graduate has caught one more pass than his coach has. But according to Kelly, there is nothing out of the ordinary about that.
"Tyler Eifert is a tight end,” Kelly said after Saturday's 13-6 win over Michigan in South Bend, “You guys seem to think he's going to get 90 balls. He's a blocking tight end who has the unique ability at the end of the game to spread out as a wide receiver and catch a pass.”
He did catch a pass in the final seconds of the game to get a first down and secure the Irish victory, but that was his lone catch of the evening. A week earlier at Michigan State, he didn't catch any passes.
“The game was such that he was required to be inside blocking and he did a heck of a job,” Kelly said. “He just continues to open everybody's eyes about his ability to be a wide receiver and a blocking tight end.”
Despite Kelly's assessment that nothing is amiss on the topic, Eifert hasn't been as active of a participant in the passing game this season. As a junior through four games, Eifert had caught 20 balls. This season that number is down to nine through the same period.
A year after registering 57 receptions for 713 yards through the regular season, Eifert is on pace to see those totals lowered to 27 catches for 474 yards this year. Kelly may not believe anything is unusual, but his offensive coordinator does.
Fighting Irish offensive coordinator Chuck Martin was explicit Wednesday on what he wanted to see from Eifert and the offense going forward.
“Yes, definitely, no question,” Martin answered when asked whether he wanted Eifert to become a bigger part of the passing attack. “We (as an offense) would like to get more involved in the passing game. I don't think, right now, it's a product of Tyler not being involved in the passing game, per se, as it is how efficiently we can throw the ball in certain situations, make good decisions, make good reads and get the ball where it needs to get to.”
As Kelly mentioned, and Martin reiterated, as a blocker, Eifert has shown great improvement and has been very valuable thus far this season. However, he is still Notre Dame's best offensive player, so lauding him for his blocking skills can be a bit underappreciated by the Irish fans, regardless of how critical that skill set is.
“Trust me,” Martin said. “Tyler has been doing awesome. He's been an unbelievable teammate and competitor, but not just for him, but for us, we are a better team if the ball gets (thrown) in No. 80's direction more.”
One aspect that certainly can be attributed toward the decline in production for Eifert is the fact that All-American receiver Michael Floyd isn't running routes opposite of Eifert this season. Martin alluded to the fact that he has become a much bigger focal point of defensive game plans this season.
“You're not going to throw the ball into double coverage,” Martin said. “We've tried that and that doesn't work well. There are certain things that the defenses are doing, we have a route designed hopefully to get the ball to 80, but they roll the coverage to him, which now opens up maybe (receiver) Robby Toma. I think it is a product of (defenses) trying to pay more attention to (Eifert) and us not always reading it as clean as we'd like to read it, but we are working on it.”