SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tyler Eifert has heard it from all angles, the incessant questions about why he's only caught 34 passes a year after reeling in 63, tops among FBS tight ends in 2011. The soft-spoken senior from Fort Wayne, Ind., didn't seem too bothered by those questions, though, since he feels he's actually improved his draft stock in his senior year.
"I control what I can control, and thats making plays when I the opportunity, being a good teammate, blocking, playing my best when Im out there to help us win," Eifert said. "It hasnt been annoying, but what people dont really understand is theres a lot of people that are watching other things than how many catches you have."
Many see Eifert's outstanding stats from 2011 -- he also led FBS tight ends in yards -- and the subsequent dropoff in 2012 as a problem, one that could make him regret returning for his senior season. But Eifert has developed into more than just a pass-catcher in 2012, becoming a guy coach Brian Kelly frequently refers to as the real deal at tight end.
"This isn't about numbers this year," Kelly said. "This is about a guy that's developing himself as a complete tight end."
Eifert said he came close to declaring for the NFL Draft last winter, following Notre Dame's Champs Sports Bowl loss to Florida State. He weighed both options, and ultimately decided to return to South Bend, where he felt he could make himself into a first-round pick.
Most scouts loved Eifert's pass-catching ability, but had plenty of doubts about his ability to handle the other half of being a tight end.
"My knock has always been Im not a good blocker, so thats something I focused on and tried to get better at, and I think thats helped me," Eifert said.
But the decision to return wasn't just about improving for the NFL. While few could've predicted the success Notre Dame has seen in 2012, looking back, Eifert's glad he doesn't have to watch the team's title bid from afar.
"Id be kicking myself if I couldnt be a part of this team," Eifert said. "Im just really happy that I get to be a part of this team."
Eifert and quarterback Tommy Rees have a fantastic rapport, with Rees looking Eifert's way seemingly every time he enters a game for Everett Golson. Had Rees quarterbacked the Irish this year, perhaps Eifert's stats would be near where they were last year.
But as Golson worked through his development, Eifert has been left out of the box score. In Notre Dame's wins over Michigan State and Michigan, Eifert only caught one pass, and the tight end didn't record more than five catches until Nov. 3 against Pittsburgh.
"Id like to be catching more balls, as many balls as I did last year, but at the end of the day were winning football games and were winning football games the way that were playing this year, not the way were playing last year," Eifert explained. "Ive said it before, you cant really be frustrated with winning."
The Golson-Eifert connection has improved in the last two weeks, with Eifert catching 12 passes for 129 yards. After Notre Dame's win over Boston College, Golson spoke about how he's learned to let Eifert use his size to reel in passes, something Rees was adept at doing last year.
That's because Eifert is, with the right throws, a matchup nightmare. Few can keep the athletic 6-foot-6, 251-pound tight end from catching a well-thrown pass.
But Eifert's pass-catching ability was a known factor. The rest of his game wasn't, although his coach feels that's changed in 2012.
"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."