The names stretch across four decades. They lead down the ancient steps from the Notre Dame locker room to the north end zone tunnel to NFL rosters, Super Bowl lore and both the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame. Dave Casper. Ken MacAfee. Mark Bavaro. Anthony Fasano. John Carlson. Kyle Rudolph. And now, perhaps the star of this class, Tyler Eifert.
"We haven't faced a tight end with this much talent," Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart told the Chicago Tribune earlier this week. "The guy is a special player. He really forces you to play different defensively because he is so multiple."
The six-foot-six, 251-pound Eifert is just as likely to line up as a split end as he is next to an offensive tackle. Just as likely to burn a team deep, as he did in securing a 31-yard game-clinching reception versus Michigan last September, as he is to provide sure-handed third-down insurance, as he did on a key third-quarter drive for the Irish at Oklahoma last October. There are a lot of Southeastern Conference players the Crimson Tide have seen who, position for position, are equal or superior to anyone they are likely to meet wearing golden helmets on Monday night. Except for the tight end position. Except for Eifert (and yes, we are including Manti Te'o in that group). Attempting to cover him is reminiscent of those backyard football games in which you attempt to cover your brother who is five years your senior.
Over the past 40 years no position in South Bend has been better represented than that of tight end, the initials of which just happen to be the same as Eifert's. Casper was an All-American in 1973 – Notre Dame won the national championship that season – and would later help the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl victory before being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. MacAfee was a three-time All-American (1975-1977) and as a senior finished third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy while leading the Fighting Irish to the national championship.
MacAfee finished his collegiate career with 133 receptions, an incredible number for an era in which passing was anathema in college football. That number was the gold standard for Irish tight ends 35 years, until Eifert caught his 134th career pass versus USC in late November.
Assume the position? Eifert has taken it to a new level in his three seasons (he missed most of this freshman year due to a back injury and still has a year of eligibility left, though he has already graduated). The Mackey Award winner as the nation's best tight end, Eifert has a feral nature to his game. He is simply too fast for most linebackers, and too big and too strong for any defensive back. This photo from the school's website perfectly exemplifies Eifert's style, as he outmuscles a Pittsburgh defensive back for the ball.
Eifert grew six inches in high school at Bishop Dwenger in Fort Wayne, Ind. He transformed from a kid whom the coaches barely noticed to a stud in his junior season. So talented was Eifert that the staff at Dwenger moved its most hotly recruited senior, wide receiver John Goodman, to quarterback so as to have the best possible pitch-and-catch combination. Goodman, of course, reverted back to wide receiver in college and now runs routes with Eifert.
Mark Bavaro was an All-American in 1984 and would later attend two Pro Bowls and help the New York Giants to a pair of Super Bowl victories during the Bill Parcells era. In his second Super Bowl appearance, versus the Denver Broncos, Bavaro caught a touchdown pass and infamously – at least as far as the Holy Cross priests back on campus were concerned – made the sign of the cross backwards.
After a fallow period in the 1990s, excellence at the position returned about a decade ago with the arrival of Fasano, a Bavaro doppelganger. Bavaro and his two successors, Carlson and Rudolph, all finished between 90 and 100 career receptions (only MacAfee had surpassed that figure) at Notre Dame and are now all on NFL rosters. Fasano starts for the Miami Dolphins while Rudolph is a starter for the Minnesota Vikings (and Carlson his backup).
Now comes Eifert. While he is the only Notre Dame player to share the cover of the school's 2012 media guide with Te'o, Eifert has received far less fanfare. No Sports Illustrated covers. No Heisman votes. No stories about life in the exotic locale from which he hails. It's Fort Wayne, after all. Yet on Monday night, watch out for him. Eifert may not be as well-known to the casual viewer as is Te'o, but he may be after midnight. In fact he just may be the most talented player on the field.