College football fans know that Notre Dame has endured a down period since Lou Holtz stepped aside as coach following the 1996 season. What can't be debated is that the Fighting Irish have continued to produce talent despite the lack of victories. Through the eras of Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis, Notre Dame has had 59 players drafted into the NFL. Notable among those picked to play on Sundays are the inordinate amount of tight ends.
The Fighting Irish program has had 15 players from that position chosen in the NFL Draft, including five in the past decade. That number is expected to increase next spring, as ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has current Notre Dame junior Kyle Rudolph ranked as the top tight end in the country and the fifth best player overall.
With every defense focused on Rudolph – and with good reason – an unknown commodity that has made himself known in the past month is Tyler Eifert.
“Tyler's done a great job for us,” Fighting Irish quarterback Dayne Crist said. “Especially when Kyle was banged up through camp.”
Rudolph, who is the lone returning semifinalist for the 2009 Mackey Award (top tight end in America), suffered a slightly pulled hamstring just prior to the start of training camp and the Notre Dame coaches limited his work at times in order for him to be as healthy as he could be this Saturday. He is expected to play with no limitations against Purdue. In his absence, the tight end repetitions were being battled for between the sophomore Eifert and seniors Bobby Burger and Mike Ragone. When the two-deep depth chart was released earlier this week, it was Eifert that was named as the backup for Rudolph.
“For the system that we have, I think he's a great fit,” Crist said. “He does a great job in receiving, and also is a real tough kid who puts his hat in there and definitely blocks somebody as well.”
The Bishop Dwenger graduate stumbled out of the gate during his freshman season in South Bend a year ago. He played in the first game against Nevada, but then injured his back and was finished for the season.
“His back injury really forced (Tyler) to pull back from all physical activities, including strength training,” first-year coach Brian Kelly said. “Once that back issue cleared, we were able to get him stronger physically.”
In Kelly's “Spread” offense, it won't be unusual to see five guys running routes, which could include two tight ends on the same play. A year ago, Eifert wasn't prepared physically to make a significant impact. However, that is not the case as this season gets under way.
“What you saw (last year) was a young man that couldn't really be the kind of player that he could be coming out of high school because of that injury,” Kelly said. “He got stronger, he developed a toughness fighting through a sore back in (training) camp, but answered the bell. I think has put himself now where he can be as good as he wants to be.”
Both Crist and Kelly have expressed confidence in utilizing Eifert early and often Saturday.
“He's got great size, he can catch the football, and he's good at the point of attack,” Kelly said. “I think we're seeing somebody that got over an injury and is maturing in an offense that suits him pretty good.”
Up nextKickoff: Purdue at Notre Dame, 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Radio: 1450-AM, 1380-AM
Notre Dame has a storied history when it comes to producing great tight ends. The following are Fighting Irish tight ends that have been drafted into the NFL.
John Carlson (2008, 2nd round, Seattle)
Anthony Fasano (2006, 2nd, Dallas)
Jerome Collins (2005, 5th, St.Louis)
John Owens (2002, 5th, Detroit)
Jabari Holloway (2001, 4th, New England)
Pete Chryplewicz (1997, 5th, Detroit)
Irv Smith (1993, 1st, New Orleans)
Derek Brown (1992, 1st, New York Giants)
Joel Williams (1987, 8th, Miami)
Tony Hunter (1983, 1st, Buffalo)
Pete Holohan (1981, 7th, San Diego)
Ken MacAfee (1978, 1st, San Francisco)
Tom Fine (1975, 16th, Buffalo)
Dave Casper (1974, 2nd, Oakland)
Jim Winegardner (1969, 5th, Chicago)