SOUTH BEND – The storied career of Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert will play out its final scene at Notre Dame Stadium at 3:30 p.m. Saturday when the Fighting Irish face Wake Forest (NBC) on Senior Day. And what a story that it has been.
The Bishop Dwenger High School graduate went to South Bend with minimal fanfare, yet his legacy has grown with every leaping catch over the past three seasons. And now Eifert is on the cusp of history, as he is just five catches and 125 yards shy of undisputedly being regarded as the greatest tight end at a university that has had a football field full of them.
“Well, I've been doing this a long time, starting in Division II,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “(We) Didn't have many Tyler Eiferts.”
No program ever has.
Kelly caught his first glimpse of Eifert's potential when the little-used (due to a back injury suffered during his freshman season) athlete started soaring up the depth chart once he found himself healthy during fall training camp entering his sophomore season.
“His ability to go and get the football and catch the ball at its highest point,” Kelly said of what caught his attention. “Just the little nuances of the position. Athleticism coupled with the fact he was not afraid. The guy does not play with that sense at all.
"He'll stick his nose in anywhere. He's not afraid. Sometimes the tight ends get the reputation as a pass catcher and they don't like to get in there and block. Sometimes they're just glorified offensive linemen. What I saw early on was a guy that had the combination and the ability to be the best tight end because of those two skills together.”
How quickly did Eifert emerge when given the opportunity? During his sophomore season, All-American tight end Kyle Rudolph suffered a season-ending injury and what was regarded as a catastrophe initially, was diminished into a shrug eventually.
Eifert started eight games that season and caught 27 passes. Rudolph saw the writing on the wall and turned pro (he was a second-round draft pick in April 2011).
“He's done a great job of committing himself to the weight room and being stronger,” Kelly said. “He's taking care of himself. He's physically fit. He hasn't missed a snap in a very rugged position. You see the way he's sometimes reckless in the way he throws his body up there. He's always trying to get an extra yard.”
Eifert's junior season was nothing short of magical as he developed into a first team All-American. He set Irish records for reception yards for a season by a tight end (803) and receptions in a season (63).
This season the numbers haven't been as staggering, as Notre Dame has taken a conservative offensive approach en route to its perfect 10-0 record. Eifert has just 34 catches for 470 yards and three touchdowns, but the decline in production hasn't been a concern of his or Kelly's.
“This isn't about numbers this year,” Kelly said. “This is about a guy that's developing himself as a complete tight end.
"He's learning about the game each and every week. Sometimes at the tight end position you get labeled as either a pass catcher or a run blocker, and he's broke that mold. He lines up as a wide receiver. He's lined up attached as a run blocker and a pass protector, because we all knew one thing that he had: He could catch the football.”
With five receptions, Eifert will pass Ken MacAfee (128) for career receptions by an Irish tight end. He is also on the verge of passing MacAfee (1,759) in career yardage. Technically, Eifert is eligible to return for next season after playing in just one game as a true freshman. However, even Kelly isn't allowing himself to daydream on that topic.
“If you asked the guys at the next level about Tyler Eifert, they really don't care about how many balls he caught because they know he can catch the football,” Kelly said. “They're looking at other things that he's developed. He's going to find himself in a pretty good position in April (in the NFL Draft).”
Here is how Tyler Eifert ranks among the most productive Notre Dame tight ends in history.
Receptions in a game - 2nd with 8 (three times). Ken MacAfee holds the mark with 9.
Receptions in a season - 1st with 63.
Receptions in a career - 2nd with 124. MacAfee holds the mark with 128.
Receiving yards in a season - 1st with 803.
Receiving yards in a career - 2nd with 1,625. MacAfee holds the mark with 1,759.
Touchdown receptions in a season - 2nd with 5. MacAfee holds the mark with 6.
Touchdown receptions for a career - 2nd with 10. MacAfee holds the mark with 15.