3rd and 8. Rees to Eifert. First Down. This Saturday refrain that has become more and more familiar to Irish fans. Mackey Watchlist Tight End Tyler Eifert-T.E. the TE-has become Notre Dame's Mr. Third Down. Situational awareness, tenacity, concentration, focus, or simply making plays-call it what you will; Eifert will likely just call it a first down.
Playmaking ability/situational awareness/tenacity/concentration/focus. Eifert has that uncanny sense of where he needs to be to get that first down, and the physical knack for stretching, stiff-arming, bulling, contorting, or diving for that first down.
Speed and athleticism. Eifert is the rare tight end who has both long speed and short speed. He can hurt a defense by high-pointing jump balls, by going over the middle and making the tough grab in traffic, by burning up the seam, or by bodying up the defender and then creating separation on short yardage throws. We saw a great example of the latter when Eifert bodied up an SC defender in the endzone, then separated and got wide open, only to be overthrown by Tommy Rees. Eifert isn't Jermaine Gresham, and one wonders if he's anywhere close to his listed 249 lbs. But what Eifert lacks in physical stature, he makes up for with a great mix of long speed, short speed, good footwork, and leaping ability.
Ball Skills. Irish fans would be hard-pressed to think of a single ball that Eifert has dropped this season. If the quarterback puts the ball in right zip code, it will likely make its way into Eifert's mailbox. Who knows if his hands are the size of small dogs, but T.E. certainly catches like it. Opposing defenses are taking note, but when Eifert high-points the ball with three defenders mugging him, there's often not much they can do.
Perimeter blocking. Eifert put his blocking skills on display against Navy, pancaking defensive backs and paving the way to Michael Floyd's 25-yard wide receiver screen on Notre Dame's first drive. If Eifert continues to invest in his downfield blocking, his efforts will pay 6-point dividends for Messrs. Gray, Wood, Floyd, Riddick, and Jones.
Overcoming Adversity. Tyler Eifert came to Notre Dame as somewhat of a ‘tweener, then had his freshman season at Notre Dame cut short by back surgery. With his future in doubt, he stuck it out, got back on the football field, and was ready to be the next great Notre Dame tight end when Kyle Rudolph went down with a hamstring injury last fall. Eifert answered the bell, racking up 26 receptions for 335 yards and two touchdowns over Notre Dame's final 7 games in the 2010 season. Irish fans have been spoiled by great tight end play, but these are decent season numbers for a tight end. Indeed Irish fans saw very little dropoff in production after Rudloph went down; Eifert posted yardage and touchdown statistics comparable to Rudolph, albeit in one more game.
As an offensive weapon, none. Eifert is one of the country's premier tight ends. Eifert's only weaknesses are in his blocking.
Strength. Eifert's physicality-or lack thereof-in the run-blocking game is probably Eifert's main weakness.
Pass blocking. Eifert isn't asked to do a lot in the way of pass blocking, probably because he is so reliable when the stakes are highest-on third down. This is likely a function of Eifert needing to continue to develop his body physically.
Eyeball test. A spine surgery will set anyone back physically, much less someone who is trying to compete with the world's top 1% of athletes. Eifert showed up as a project and his surgery couldn't have helped his physical development. Suffice to say that Eifert doesn't yet pass the physical eyeball test. He'll likely never be Vernon Davis-unless he can find a way to go back in time and be reborn as Vernon Davis-but he does have room to pack on some lean muscle. Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore both made in-season strength and weight gains late last season, so it's not unreasonable to think that Eifert can put on a good 5-10 lbs. of muscle by the time spring ball.
Stiff-arm. Despite that he lacks Kyle Rudolph's ideal size, Eifert has proven difficult for opposing defenders to bring down. He does not hesitate to lower the shoulder, and he maintains his balance after contact. Yet he's a 6'6" tight end so he's usually being covered by much-shorter safeties and cornerbacks. I'd like to see him use his length a little more. A good stiff-arm can be an incredible weapon for a big tight end in the open field, and it is one that Eifert needs to add to his arsenal.
Key Matchup vs. Wake Forest
Wake has an athletic but undersized defense. The Demon Deacons will likely try to possess the Notre Dame backfield. Whether they play man or zone behind their blitzes, Eifert can help to exorcise the Demon blitzes by beating his man or finding the whole in the zone. Tommy Rees should learn a lesson from the USC and Pitt games. If the defense is taking away Michael Floyd, visit The Eifert Tower early and often. The sights are magnificent in the fall.
How will Notre Dame use Eifert?
Whenever Michael Floyd is double-covered. Whenever it's 3rd and 5 or longer. Whenever we want to pass in the red zone. Whenever the Irish want to pass outside of the red zone. Not much bad can happen when you throw it in Eifert's general vicinity.
Coach Kelly is likely to rely on his 300-lb pulling gazelle linemen and his talented running backs to run away from Wake's Demonic blitzes early on. If the defense is keying in on Floyd, Kelly and Rees should neutralize the Wake blitzes with short and intermediate routes to Eifert. Healthy doses of the running game and Eifert early on should be just the body blows necessary to weaken Wake's defense for the second half. And just as this strategy begins to wear down and cloy the Demon D, just as the Demons get more tentative in their blitzing, look for pump fakes on the short throws followed by big gains downfield to Floyd and Eifert.