SOUTH BEND -- Statistics never seemed much of a priority for Tyler Eifert; at least the public Tyler Eifert, whom Notre Dame football fans have come to know.
The 6-foot-6, 251-pound senior tight end didnt wince once during a three-game stretch -- Michigan State through Miami -- in which he caught just three passes.
As long as the teams winning ..., was his mantra. If we werent winning, that would be different.
Fair enough. Sad to see a pair of soft hands attached to a quite athletic body wasted as a blocker and a decoy, though.
He never squawked. But, thats just who Eifert is. He never tried to be the furry face of the Irish program. He never tried to lobby the emotional heart and soul of the team away from Manti Teo.
Eifert, a John Mackey Award finalist, just did his job.
The game plan started to find him again. In wins over Pitt, Boston College and Wake Forest he caught 18 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown. His fifth reception against the Demon Deacons, in the third quarter, was the 129th of his career, making Eifert the most prolific pass-catching tight end in Notre Dame history. He passed Ken MacAfee (1974-77), a member the College Football Hall of Fame.
Eifert needs 50 receiving yards against Southern Cal Saturday or in the bowl game to pass MacAfee (1,759-1,710) in that department.
What seemed out of place was Eiferts post-game reaction to eclipsing the reception record. Rather than taking the milestone in stride, he sounded more like Roger Maris after he finally passed Babe Ruths single-season home run mark in the 60s -- like he was somewhat of a reluctant participant in a competition that had gone far beyond his scope.
I was real happy to have (the record), Eifert said. I was happy that I dont have to think about it anymore. You could say what you want, say youre not thinking about it, but you know right where you are (in relation to MacAfee).
Coach (Brian) Kelly said, If you drop this, were not throwing to you the rest of the game. I made sure I caught it.
Maybe theres more going on in Eiferts mind than he lets on.
Remember, this was a guy whose playing career at Notre Dame nearly ended before it started. Some serious back issues not only kept him off the field as a freshman, but made medical folks wonder if his body would hold up.
Im just thankful for a long and healthy career that put me in a position to get the record, said Eifert, not taking anything for granted. It doesnt feel like it was too long ago (when his career was in question). There was definitely a real thought that I wouldnt (be able to play). That wasnt the case and Im grateful for that.
So are the Irish. Eleven wins into the season, he and TJ Jones are tied for the team lead in receptions with 40. Eifert has collected 555 yards, 36 more than Jones. He and Jones have both scored four touchdowns.
If Notre Dame plans on having success against the Trojan defense, Eifert will have to be a big part of the game plan.
(Against Wake Forest), we tried to get him the football, (and he) made incredible plays down the field, Kelly said of Eifert, who skipped a shot at the NFL draft after last season to return to Notre Dame. (Hes) a combination of a guy that understands Notre Dame, understands the value of a great education, and wanted to be on a championship football team. I think he epitomizes in terms of what we look for as a Notre Dame football player.
And hes a well-rounded, full-package tight end, to boot.
What we find so often in tight ends is theyre one or the other: Theyre big guys, really good blockers, or theyre undersized guys that can run and catch a football, said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe. (Eiferts) the perfect combination. Hes a good blocker. He did some good stuff in the run game, very athletic, and has some great hands. A great player, and one of the few tight ends that Ive seen that has the ability hes got to not only block but catch the football.
The humility in Eifert forces him to deflect the praise.
To (be a great tight end), you have to be able to block; catch the ball, Eifert said. Im still not there. I still have a lot of work to do. I think Ive made a great improvement.
With the record out of the way, he can just relax and focus on his game.
The only numbers he needs to count now are the wins.