With our examinations of the Notre Dame defensive line, linebackers, secondary, and offensive line now out of the way, we will move on today to take a look at the pass catchers in the Notre Dame offense.
The Irish Tight Ends
Editor's Note: In order to make objective comparisons of different players and units for this series, we're going to be leaning heavily on NFL draft projections compiled by the folks at CBS Sports. Of course NFL talent, or at least projected NFL talent, doesn't necessarily equate to effectiveness at the college level, but we find that it is highly correlated, and can often be the best objective measure readily available for the individual ability of college players. Further, the CBS projections are by no means the only ones out there, nor are they necessarily the best, but they are quite comprehensive and include projections not just for this year's draft entries, but also for underclassmen as well, which helps tremendously for this endeavor.
By far the most dangerous weapon on Notre Dame's offense is their phenomenal fourth-year junior starting tight end,(#80). Despite having a year of eligibility left, Eifert is rated as the #1 best tight end in the nation and is projected to be a 1st round pick in this year's NFL Draft should he decide to forego his fifth year. Eifert's raw statistics alone are extremely impressive for a tight end, as he leads all Irish pass-catchers with 44 receptions, 653 yards receiving, and 4 touchdowns on the season. However it is Eifert's effectiveness as the team's go-to target on 3rd downs that makes him such a key cog in this offense. His combination of size, speed, athleticism, and ball skills is rare for a tight end, and that's what makes him nearly impossible to defend for opposing defenses, even when they know the ball is coming his way.
Like Alabama, Notre Dame uses one starting tight end on virtually every snap (Eifert, of course), but then frequently brings on a second tight end, especially on running downs. For Notre Dame, the second tight end on the field is sophomore(#85), who weighs in at a massive 6'7" and 260 pounds. Niklas is not targeted on passing plays all that often, as he has just 5 catches on the season, but he plays a significant role in the offense primarily as a blocker in two-tight-end sets. He began his career as a true freshman last season playing linebacker, so he hasn't been fully acclimated to the position just yet and is not yet ranked as an NFL prospect at the position, but he is considered extremely talented and has been very effective as a blocker this year, and may yet have an NFL future.
The Irish have one other young tight end who plays situationally in sophomore(#18). Koyack has just three catches on the season and doesn't play all that often, but like Niklas, he is considered to be a talented young player with all the tools to be a dangerous tight end.
It is safe to say that Alabama has not faced any tight ends this season on the level of Notre Dame's. Eifert is probably the most dangerous pass-catching tight end in all of college football, and Niklas gives the Irish another physical, talented tight end who can run block at a high level. All three levels of Alabama's defense will be challenged by this unit of the Irish offense on both running and passing plays.
Comparing Notre Dame's tight ends to Alabama's
Alabama untilizes its tight ends in a very similar fashion as do the Irish, with a virtual every-down starter, a primarily run blocking second tight end who plays frequently, and a third tight end/H-back who plays situationally.
Alabama's starter at the position is fifth-year senior Michael Williams (#89), who has started for three full seasons now as the Tide's primary tight end. Williams is a fine tight end in his own right, projected to be a 5th-round pick in this year's NFL Draft and ranked as the ninth-best tight end in this year's draft class. While his speed and pass-catching skills are probably just average for a tight end, he still plays a significant role in the Alabama passing attack, catching 21 passes this season, including 3 touchdowns. While he won't blow anyone away with his receiving capabilities, he is considered an elite run blocker, and it is his ability in this area, coupled with his size (over 270 pounds) that make him a likely NFL player. However, while Alabama has a highly experienced, NFL-caliber tight end, he is nowhere near Eifert's level when it comes to receiving skills.
Alabama's second tight end, who plays whenever the Tide employs a two-tight-end set, is third-year sophomore(#84). Like Notre Dame's Niklas, Vogler plays a significant number of snaps each game but is used primarily as a run blocker and is very rarely targeted on passing plays; he has only two catches on the season. However, like Niklas, he has elite size at 6'7" and 258 pounds and he has grown into an effective run blocker this season.
The third player who sees regular action for Alabama at the tight end position is senior Kelly Johnson (#31), a former walk-on. Johnson plays situationally as an H-back, often lining up in the backfield or going in motion. He has four catches on the season.
The two teams utlilize the tight end position in very similar ways. However, while Alabama's tight ends are considered to be very good run blockers, perhaps even as good as Notre Dame's unit, the pass-catching abilities of Eifert give the Irish the clear advantage when it comes to the tight end position.
The Irish Wide Receivers
Notre Dame's leader at the wide receiver position is junior T.J. Jones (#7). Interestingly, Jones was highly recruited by Alabama coming out of high school in Georgia and was the top receiver for Gainesville High School quarterback Blake Sims, who is now Alabama's backup quarterback. Jones is second the team in most receiving categories behind Eifert, but he has clearly been the most productive wide receiver. He has 43 catches for 559 yards and 4 touchdowns on the season. He is ranked as the 16th-best wide receiver in the junior class nationwide, meaning he is likely to be selected somewhere near the middle of next year's NFL Draft.
The starter opposite of Jones for the Irish has been redshirt freshman(#10). Despite missing two games late in the season due to injury, Daniels has contributed 25 catches and 375 yards receiving on the season, both marks indicating him as the second-most productive among the Irish receivers. Daniels is ranked as the 9th-best wide receiver in the freshman class nation-wide, so he certainly has plenty talent.
Notre Dame's third-choice receiver, senior(#9), functions primarily as the Irish's slot receiver, and has been effective in that role. He has 24 catches and 252 yards receiving on the season. Though he is not rated as an NFL prospect, he has been reliable as Notre Dame's #3 receiver this year.
Notre Dame has two other options at receiver when they go to a four- or five-receiver look or when relieving one of their three primary receivers. Both(#81), and fifth-year senior, and (#87), a junior, offer the Irish bigger targets at 6'3" and 6'4" respectively. Both players have seven catches on the season.
Overall, Notre Dame's wide receiver unit is overly talented, but they are certainly solid. Both Jones and Daniels are likely future NFL players, even if they aren't likely elite high-end draft picks. Still, there is solid talent there, and a reliable senior slot receiver in Toma as a third option makes them a pretty well-rounded group as well. Alabama has faced better groups of receivers against Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M, and probably Georgia, but Notre Dame still has enough weapons to keep Alabama honest, especially with a mobile quarterback who is able to extend plays with his feet.
Comparing Notre Dame's wide receivers to Alabama's
Thanks to three key injuries suffered within the Alabama receiving corps this season, the Tide now relies primarily on a three-man rotation at wide receiver, much like Notre Dame.
The Tide's top receiver, as most college football fans now know after his game-winning catch in the SEC Championship game, is true freshman(#9). Cooper was an elite recruit, but few could have predicted just how productive he would be this season. He leads the team with 53 catches, 895 receiving yards, and 9 touchdowns. He is ranked as the #1 best wide receiver in the freshman class nation-wide, and is hence likely to be a very early draft pick two years down the road. Cooper has been a starter since he stepped on campus--he's that talented--but he's also become more and more effective as the year has gone on. Notre Dame's Jones and Daniels are talented young receivers, but they aren't on the elite level that Cooper is, either in terms of talent or production.
At the start of the season, Alabama's starter opposite Cooper had been third-year sophomore, but White suffered a season-ending ACL injury during the fifth game of the season against Ole Miss after going for over 100 yards and 2 touchdowns in the Tide's first four games. Later, at the end of the season, Alabama lost its fastest receiver and biggest deep threat, Kenny Bell, to a season-ending leg injury in the Auburn game. Bell had an extremely productive season, going for 431 yards and 3 touchdowns on a whopping 24.5 yards per catch, showing just how explosive and dangerous he was. Those two injuries were a big blow to Alabama's receiving corps, as two of its top four receivers are now unavailable for Monday's championship game. Making matters worse, true freshman receiver Chris Black, a highly touted prospect who was expected to crack the rotation this year, suffered a season-ending ACL injury prior to the season and has missed the entire season, though he has now been cleared to practice. It is not expected that coaches will burn his redshirt for the title game, but given the other injuries suffered in the unit, it's not out of the question.
With all of those injuries, Alabama's starter opposite of Cooper for this game will be fourth-year junior(#83). Norwood has been the least flashy but perhaps most reliable player in Alabama's deep receiver rotation the last two years. His stats--26 catches for 395 yards and 4 touchdowns on the year--are not earth-shattering, but considering he's played much of the year as Alabama's third- or fourth-choice receiver, it starts to become a bit more impressive. Norwood is ranked as the 14th-best wide receiver in the junior class nation-wide, meaning that he's likely to be drafted in next year's NFL Draft. Based on that ranking, his talent is on par with Notre Dame's top receiver Jones, who is ranked 16th in the junior class.
Although he started the season as the Tide's fifth-choice receiver, sophomore(#22) is now firmly Alabama's third-choice receiver and will see a lot of time in Monday's game playing the slot position, much like Notre Dame's Toma. Jones is ranked as the 23rd-best wide receiver in the sophomore class nation-wide, so while he's not an elite talent, he has NFL potential. He has amassed 25 catches for 328 yards and 4 touchdowns on the year, so while he'll play a bigger role in the offense than he has for most of the season, he's been a productive part of Alabama's offense all year. Further, Jones is extremely dangerous in the open field, giving him big-play potential from his slot position. His open-field capabilities are also the reason he features as Alabama's top punt returner and kickoff returner. He averages over 10 yards per punt return, though he has yet to break one for a touchdown, and has fumbled multiple times on the season, causing him to lose his starting punt return job on occasion.
Alabama will stick mostly to a three-man rotation in this game with Cooper, Norwood, and Jones, but two other players will likely see the field as well. Redshirt freshman(#80) has appeared in every game this season and has become a more common presence on the field later in the year, especially as the injuries have mounted. Coaches love his blocking ability, so he may well play a significant number of snaps, but he's unlikely to be targeted in the passing game, as he's caught only 4 passes for 28 yards on the year despite playing each game. The only other receiver who is likely to see game action for the Alabama offense is true freshman (#8). Jones hasn't played a tremendous amount for the Tide offense this season, but he does appear situationally as a slot receiver. Like his teammate Christion Jones, he has tremendous speed and quickness in the open field, and in fact now lines up next to the other Jones for the Tide on kickoff returns.
Alabama's wide receiver unit isn't nearly as deep as it would have been this season without the injuries, and it isn't going to be as explosive or dangerous as it has been most of this season with the loss of White and Bell. Still, even with the players who are left for the Tide, Alabama has the advantage in talent and production at all three receiver spots relative to the Irish. Cooper will hands-down be the best receiver on the field on Monday night, although Notre Dame's top two receivers T.J. Jones and Daniels are comparable to Alabama's second and third options, Norwood and Christion Jones.
Really, then, with injuries accounted for, it is the presence of Cooper that gives Alabama the edge at receiver, much like the presence of Eifert gives Notre Dame the edge at tight end. All told, when considering both pass-catching units, it's probably safe to call it a draw. Both teams have an elite option (Eifert and Cooper), and beyond those players the teams are pretty comparable now that Alabama is without two of its top players.