SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert has had to work a lot harder this year to accomplish a lot less personally, discovering that being the best receiver on the field draws a lot more attention.
Defenders are double teaming him and forcing him out of his routes, making it harder to be as productive as last season when he set the school record for catches by a tight end with 63. He was held without a catch against Michigan State, had just one against Michigan and two against Miami, a span where sometimes his contribution came as more of a blocker than a receiver.
The soft-spoken senior from Fort Wayne doesn't let it faze him, though. After mulling a decision to turn pro after last season, he's just happy to be part of the unbeaten fifth-ranked Fighting Irish (6-0) as they prepare to play Brigham Young (4-3) on Saturday.
"It's just nice to be winning," he said. "I'd rather come back and be winning than losing. But either way I would have been happy to be back."
The Irish could use a big game by Eifert against the Cougars, who rank third in the country in rushing defense at 68 yards a game.
Eifert hasn't let the lack of production frustrate him, saying it simply isn't his style. He said he learned that last season from watching receiver Michael Floyd, a first-round draft pick with the Arizona Cardinals. That's when Floyd was the focus of opposing defenses and Eifert flourished from being the guy who was getting single-coverage.
"You just keep playing. It's a long game. Be patient," Eifert said.
Linebacker Manti Te'o said his teammates notice Eifert's work ethic and lack of selfishness.
"He hasn't had the kind of receptions and numbers that he would like, but you never would see Tyler complaining. As long as we're winning, he's happy," Te'o said. "He leads by example. He leads by his work ethic, and just really, really doing his best to ensure that our team wins."
While the number of catches he is making this season has dropped, the plays he is making have been big. Eifert has only 15 catches this season, yet 10 of those have been for first downs or touchdowns.
Against Stanford, Eifert tied the score at 10-10 on the first play of the fourth-quarter with a 24-yard TD reception on third-and-18 where he used his 6-foot-6 height to get above a pair of 6-1 Stanford defenders to catch the pass from Everett Golson. His only reception against Michigan was a 38-yard catch on a third-and-4 that allowed Notre Dame to run out the clock and make sure Michigan, which had won three straight games in the final 27 seconds, didn't get a chance for a comeback.
He also had four catches for a career-high 98 yards in a victory over Purdue, where his father was a former basketball standout.
Coach Brian Kelly said he's enjoyed watching Eifert develop from being a quiet player who sat in the back of the room into one of the best players on the team who sits up front and is a leader.
"You know you're moving your program along when your best players are your best workers," Kelly said.
Eifert continues a growing list of standout tight ends at Notre Dame that includes former second-round draft picks Anthony Fasano and John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph in the past seven years.
If Eifert can raise his productivity a bit he can break the school record of 128 career receptions by a tight end set by Ken MacAfee from 1974-77. Eifert has 105 career catches now.
"That would be pretty amazing when you really think about it," he said.