This 5 player series dissects returning Irish players whose careers appear to be approaching "Now or Never" junctures. Each featured athlete enters Notre Dame's 2013 Fall Camp as a Junior. As members of the consensus Top 10 2011 Irish Recruiting Class, they know two of their original class members almost assuredly will go in the 1st Round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Others in their Irish locker room adorn pre-season All-America and positional award "watch" lists. With another élite class in 2013 set to take their first reps in August, many of these upperclassmen will find a depth chart featuring experienced veterans on top and talented newcomers below.
Tight End Ben Koyack
Many of the game's greatest players can't make the following statement: "I started in college football's National Championship game." Ben Koyack is one of those select few players for whom this is fact. Fans of the 2012 Notre Dame Football team wouldn't list Ben Koyack in the top 40-50 most valuable players for the Irish last fall, but when Notre Dame opened up against Alabama in a three tight end set - Ben Koyack was on the field. It was his only start in 2012 and as the third tight behind All-American Tyler Eifert and projected 2013 starter Troy Niklas - Koyack didn't see playing time on a regular basis. His most memorable moments involved blocking mistakes and what appeared as missed assignments. Even with Eifert off in an NFL training camp, Koyack is still the man in the middle of a five man depth chart and appears to be facing a Now or Never crossroads in South Bend.
Previous Now or Nevers: Ishaq Williams • Jalen Brown & Josh Atkinson
The 247 Rankings assigned Ben Koyack a 4-Star rating as the 4th best tight end in the 2011 Class and 67th best player in the nation. At the time the 6'6'' Koyack signed his letter of intent in 2011, Notre Dame appeared to have its heir apparent to Kyle Rudolph in Tyler Eifert, with Koyack being touted as next in line to snatch red zone passes over helpless safeties and corners. A late addition to the 2011 class came in the form of Troy Niklas, a USC de-commit, who would start a game as a freshman on the Notre Dame defense before joining Koyack the following spring on the tight end depth chart.
Like Niklas, Ben Koyack also started a game during his freshman campaign. He took the field with the first unit against Air Force when the Irish opened in a multiple tight end set. Although Koyack played in 12 of the 13 games, he registered only one catch for five yards against Pittsburgh.
As the 2012 Fall Camp began, Koyack appeared to have slipped down the depth chart despite a 2012 class that didn't bring in any new tight ends. Tyler Eifert was the consensus All-America, Troy Niklas was the Herculean untackle-able new toy, and junior-to-be Alex Welch a top-notch in-line blocker whom the staff could utilize in multiple ways. Welch would unfortunately suffer a season-ending injury that thrust Koyack back into the picture for an offense and coach who loved to get tight ends on the field.
Much like the Now or Never series first subject Ishaq Williams, Koyack made the biggest play of his brief career in the season opener against Navy. Koyack snagged a 23 yard pass against the Midshipmen that was in no way a precursor to an expanded role in the offense. He would go on to play in each contest but only grabbed two more passes for 16 total yards. More significantly were Koyack's hard-to-miss problems when on the field in a blocking role. He was often overmatched at the point of attack which may have shrunk offensive coordinator Chuck Martin's playbook as the season wore on. It's tough not to envision an offseason meeting with Kelly, Martin and position coach Scott Booker telling Koyack his potential was being wasted unless he upped the ante in a big way during the 2013 off-season.
Troy Niklas is the clear-cut starter. After that things are unclear heading towards the season-opener at Temple. Senior Alex Welch was positioned a year ago as the preferred option in the "blocking tight end role" and at 6'4'', 251 lbs he is another big target for the passing attack. In the initial practice reports Welch looks healthy and ready to reclaim his slot in the pecking order. Added to the tight end depth chart are 247's 6th & 7th rated tight ends in the 2013 class - 6'5" Durham Smythe & 6'3.5" Mike Heuerman. Early returns on both indicate redshirting is the preferred option if the season plays out like the coaches hope. Both freshmen could use a year with Paul Longo packing pounds on their listed weights heading into the season: Heuerman (225 lbs) Smythe (235 lbs). The bonus of each player taking a year off: Redshirt = Scout Team = blocking 322 lb Stephon Tuitt every day for 4 months. You might call it trial by fire but it will be a learning experience unlike any other.
Is It Now Or Never?
For Ben Koyack, the 2013 Fall Camp is in many ways a do or die audition. Again, like classmate Ishaq Williams, Koyack possesses elite ability on an ideal frame but he's not the best at either of his positions most important tasks: blocking and pass-catching. Niklas and Welch both retain another year of eligibility (whether Niklas stays remains to be seen) so there is no clear path for him to the starter's spot this year or next. If Koyack can establish early that his blocking has improved dramatically, then he could become a viable option for Chuck Martin to employ and create match-up problems while trusting him to handle run game responsibilities. There's never been much to question his natural athletic ability and receiving acumen, but if opponents know when #18 enters the game that a pass is likely then he becomes more trouble than he's worth. That's where he sat in his development phase at the end of 2012.
Wild Cards - Exclusive to this site is the Ishaq Williams to tight end thought bubble. If Niklas excels this season and Williams continues underwhelming on defense - what's stopping the staff from making Williams a new offensive weapon in 2014? The answer is nothing. I think the odds of this playing out are higher than anybody thinks and would signal the end of Koyack's hopes of continuing the Irish legacy at tight end. Wild Card #2 - The 6'5'' Corey Robinson finding himself on the TE depth chart next spring or serving as the de-facto 3rd man in multiple tight end sets. Either way - neither would be positive developments for Ben Koyack.
Projection For 2013
With Tommy Rees back at QB1, Notre Dame is more likely to utilize even more multiple tight end sets in comparison to an Everett Golson or Andrew Hendrix run offense - especially with newcomers at the running back position. George Atkinson III and the running backs blocking must establish their blocking skills before Chuck Martin trusts Tommy Rees health to their protection ability. I expect Koyack to be the back 1/3 of a heavy rotation between the three upperclassmen at the position. If the tempo of the offense ratchets up like we're told, then Koyack & Welch could be in line to rotate entire series and get multiple weekly targets. Unlike Ishaq Williams, Jalen Brown, and Josh Atkinson - I'm predicting a surprisingly nice season for Ben. He's going to be on the field too much to not contribute and when Tommy Rees sees him breaking outside against a 5'10" safety with no help, we'll catch a glimpse of why he was so highly rated heading to campus.
Stats - Estimating just over a catch per game for Koyack, which would exceed Niklas totals as the #2 in 2012. With as much time as I expect him on the field I just don't see how Koyack doesn't find the end zone for hist first Notre Dame touchdown. Prediction: 17 Catches, 203 Yards, 2 TD
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