Tyler Eifert soaring despite numbers

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The question comes nearly everywhere Tyler Eifert goes, be it out to dinner or at a family's tailgate after one of Notre Dame's five home victories.

You don't have that many catches -- will that hurt your stock?

"It's fine, I just answer them politely and move on," Eifert said. "It's not a problem. You'd rather be recognized than unrecognized. I guess it's a good problem to have."

The "problem" is that Eifert has just 34 catches this season for 470 yards. It's a problem because he passed on the NFL last winter following a 63-catch, 803-yard 2011 campaign.

But Eifert has played most of the season with a first-year starting quarterback. And he is still atop the team lead in both catches and yards. And this is all despite being the focus of every defense he has played.

All of this has highlighted his blocking skills, the one knock on the 6-foot-6, 251-pounder entering this season. Notre Dame is 10-0 entering senior day against Wake Forest, and Eifert is the No. 1 tight end on Mel Kiper's Big Board, a likely first-round pick regardless of the statistical drop.

"He'll stick his nose in anywhere. He's not afraid," coach Brian Kelly said. "Sometimes the tight ends get the reputation as a pass-catcher and they don't like to get in there and block. Sometimes they're just glorified offensive lineman. What I saw early on was a guy that had the combination and the ability to be the best tight end because of those two skills together."

Eifert is six catches away from breaking Ken MacAfee's school record for career catches by a tight end (128), and he is a semifinalist for the Mackey Award. He has had no regrets about the decision to return to school, especially since he would be kicking himself having to watch a season anything like this one away from campus.

He has used the extra year to bulk up, and his stock has risen despite the numbers.

"It's not really in my control," Eifert said of numbers. "I control what I can control: That's making plays when I get the opportunity, being a good teammate, blocking, playing my best when I'm out there to help us win. So it hasn't really been annoying. People don't really understand there's a lot of people that are watching other things other than how many catches you have."

His future on Sundays looks brighter than it used to be. But right now he is happy to be a major contributor to a team still in the thick of the national title race with two regular-season games remaining, big digits or not.

"It's annoying and he knows it is, too," former prep teammate John Goodman said of the questions. "But he doesn't really worry about it. The NFL's going to look and see he's an all-around tight end, and that's going to be big for him in the draft."