Before Tyler Eifert caught his first collegiate pass, a two-decade evaluator of college football talent offered this of the then third-string redshirt-freshman:
“I’ve had some good players at other schools at that position, but he’s has good as I’ve coached.”
At the time, Brian Kelly's August 2010 assessment of Eifert seemed incongruent to others' ratings of the three-star recruit from Bishop Dwenger, HS (Fort Wayne, Ind.). He's made good on Kelly's claim, securing 124 receptions, 10 touchdowns, more than 1,600 yards and countless clutch chain-moving grabs.
Eifert's likewise since-ascended to a different, much more relevant three star ranking -- one of the three brightest at the position in Notre Dame history.
Nod to the Past
Notre Dame's nearly unbroken 40-season lineage of future NFL tight ends began in the early 70s with Dave Casper, an eventual NFL and College Football Hall of Famer. (Casper was a dominant offensive tackle for Ara Parseghian as well.)
He and the oft-referenced Ken MacAfee (1974-77) remain the gold standards at the position, MacAfee thanks to three seasons of All-America honors and his status as the best pass-catcher on the 1977 national champion Irish.
"He was Joe Montana's security blanket," said former classmate of the pair and Eifert's first collegiate head coach, Charlie Weis.
Since MacAfee's graduation future NFL standouts (Mark Bavaro, Kyle Rudolph), first-round draft picks (Derek Brown, Irv Smith), and sleeper second-round selections-turned starters (Anthony Fasano, John Carlson) highlight a four-decade streak of uninterrupted excellence at the position.
Intelligent arguments can be made to the contrary, but in my 30-plus seasons of chronicling Irish football, Eifert stands above his numerous modern challengers, joining the Casper/MacAfee duo to form the best trio at the position in the program's storied history.
Beyond the Numbers
Named a John Mackey Award semi-finalist, Eifert will likely break MacAfee's 35-year career receptions record (128) Saturday on Senior Day vs. Wake Forest. With 1,625 receiving yards, he'll likewise pass the latter's career mark (1,754) either next week in Los Angeles or during bowl season. (MacAfee has a five touchdown lead on Eifert for the career record -- a mark that seems just out of reach.)
But gaudy statistics play a small part of Eifert's stunning climb in position's annals. Like MacAfee, and unlike every tight end that's taken the field between the pair, Eifert is his offense's best pass-catching weapon. Like MacAfee, and unlike nearly every tight end listed above, Eifert is the lynchpin of an offense in championship contention.
Admittedly, the modern-emphasis on the pass renders statistics such as pass receptions and yardage a difficult point of comparison to the run-heavy days of college football yore. For instance, among Eifert's three highest single-game reception efforts (Maryland, Air Force, and Pittsburgh, all 2011), only the latter registers as a crucial component of a tough Notre Dame victory.
Rather, its the senior's weekly production -- on and off the stat sheet -- that sets him apart from his recent peers.
"This isn't about numbers this year," said Kelly of Eifert's championship effort in the midst of a relatively common 34-catch, 3-TD output to date. "This is about a guy that's developing himself as a complete tight end.
"He's done a great job of committing himself to the weight room and being stronger. He's taking care of himself. He's physically fit. 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."
That's the Eifert of today, but for Kelly in 2010, Eifert's potential was predicated on a skill set essential for the modern tight end.
"His ability to go and get the football and catch the ball at its highest point," offered Kelly in reflection of his then-untested pupil's greatest strength. "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 lineman. 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."
Now 34 months removed from a discectomy to repair a herniated disk in his back, Eifert stands an imposing 6'6" and close to 260 pounds. Matched up against a linebacker, he's too fast; against a safety, too quick out of his break and adept at his craft; vs. a cornerback, simply far too big as six drawn pass interference penalties this season can attest.
By any reasonable measure, Eifert will conclude his Irish career among the best to ever play at the program. Three more victories would add championship pedigree to his already glowing resume.
Thereafter Eifert will join a continuous fraternity of NFL talent produced by the school. (Click here for more on Tight End U)
"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."
Eye Opening Evolution
I gathered with colleagues shortly after Kelly offered his take on the future of the then little known Eifert in August 2010. Interviews were conducted post-practice and on the field at the time and one of the requested players had peeled off his pads while awaiting Q&A from the media horde.
Before approaching a slightly-built 6'5" athlete one colleague asked of me: "Who's that?"
"Eifert," I responded.
"That's not a tight end," was his retort.
As Eifert's career progressed, it turns out that colleague was unwittingly on the mark in his assessment.
Eifert became much more.