The circumstances came as a bit of a surprise, but Notre Dame is looking toward Ben Koyack as its top tight end this year.
With Troy Niklas passing on his senior year and declaring for the NFL Draft in January, Koyack — who made great strides in the latter half of the 2013 season — assume the job as Notre Dame's No. 1 tight end. It's a role coach Brian Kelly thinks Koyack can fill well, even if the senior-to-be only has 14 receptions in his career. It's praise — and a role — Koyack embraces.
"I don't know if I really call it pressure, I'd call it confidence and responsibility and that's something I really enjoy that he says that about me," Koyack said. "It's something I'm going to have to step up to the plate and do, but I feel like it's a task I can take on."
Where Kelly saw Koyack make the greatest strides last year was as a blocking tight end. That praise was far more than bluster — Notre Dame deployed Koyack and Niklas in plenty of two tight end sets from October of last year through the Pinstripe Bowl.
And Koyack showed a flair for pass catching, too, reeling touchdowns against Arizona State, Air Force and Navy.
"From the No. 1 spot, you have to be very well-rounded — a mixture of a good pass blocker, good run blocker and gotta be able to go out and catch passes and block in space," Koyack said. "There's not really one particular area, it's becoming well-rounded to be an every down guy."
Freshman Durham Smythe seems to be in line to slide into a backup/No. 2 role, with his usage depending on how well-rounded he can get. Coaches and teammates have raved about his pass-catching ability, though at 242 pounds he weighs in smaller than Koyack (261 pounds) and has work to do as a blocker.
But Notre Dame has a well-known history of developing successful tight ends, from John Carlson to Anthony Fasano to Kyle Rudolph to Tyler Eifert. Niklas, who's expected to be a second-round pick in May's NFL Draft, is next in that lineage.
That leaves Koyack to carry the mantle, and that's something he's wanted since he committed to Notre Dame in 2011.
"You don't come here unless you want to do that," Koyack said. "... Especially with the reputation we have, it's something — it's pretty much the reason I came here, to have that role."