MOBILE, Ala. — From the time Ben Koyack accepted a scholarship to play football at Notre Dame, it was “degree first, football second.”
Thus, when the senior tight end was asked early during Senior Bowl week about battling adversity, he strayed from football.
“Any math class at Notre Dame,” Koyack said with a grin. “Talk about adversity. Going through calculus I, calculus II – that was a struggle. My GPA would be a lot higher if I didn’t have to take those. … something I never thought I’d be able to do.”
Despite being the top tight end in the Nation in 2011 coming out of Oil City, Pa., and in 2014 a semifinalist for the Mackey Award (given to the country's top tight end), Koyack said landing at Notre Dame and, eventually, the Senior Bowl, for years also seemed out of the realm of possibility.
“Every kid things about playing at a big-time collegiate program but whether or not it was going to happen is another story. Especially in high school, I come from a really small place, I didn’t really think I’d have this kind of chance.”
Yet, here Koyack is, one of six tight ends set to play in the country’s top college All-Star game for seniors on Saturday. He started every game in 2014, corralling 30 catches, including the game-winning touchdown against Stanford and a key third-down conversion during the game-winning drive in the Irish’s upset of LSU in the Music City Bowl.
And although it seemed he was often blending in among the North team’s three tight ends during practice week, that’s not the way his position coach, Tennessee Titans' Mike Mularkey, viewed it at all.
“Coming here, heard about the pass catching and a little bit of the inexperience – not having a lot of play time – but Ben, out of the three guys I have, has improved the most,” Mularkey said on Thursday, the third and final padded practice.
“Now the question of the run blocking, I’m impressed so far. If it’ll carry over to the game on Saturday, we’ll see. … when the bullets are flying.”
Koyack arrived in Mobile known for his “fluid routes and aggressive catching radius,” according to CBS Sports. The blocking, as it is for many collegiate tight ends, was a bigger unknown.
“Some of the things we’re doing, running plays from the backfield, leading on linebackers – new to him. You can see he’s eager to learn,” said Mularkey.
Koyack’s said his biggest goal of the week was to show the Titans staff and NFL types he can be plugged into any situation, counted on to fill a number of roles. But standing toe-to-toe with some of the bigger trench players on the North, Koyack admits, has been a great challenge.
“Trying to block some of these down guys, especially with them having bigger weight advantages on me,” said Koyack, who confirmed early-week meetings with the Bears and Packers. “That could always be difficult, but at the end of the day, you have to keep working on everything. Can’t really take anything for granted.”
As for the success of Tyler Eifert and his predecessor Kyle Rudolph, his Irish predecessors who went on to become first-round draft picks, Koyack is trying not to get caught up in that.
“You can’t really think about it or let it psyche you out,” Koyack said. “But they’ve shown me all the hard work it takes to be successful.”
From surviving calculus to catching his coach’s eye at the Senior Bowl — he caught a touchdown in the game, Koyack seems poised for success, whether in football or elsewhere. He’ll earn his degree in marketing in May, weeks after likely hearing his name called at some point during draft weekend.
It’s a scenario for which Koyack will gladly make a one-time exception on his “degree first, football second” motto.