Notre Dame has had its fair share of elite tight ends throughout the history of the program – especially lately with a string of four first and second round picks over the last seven years. Three quarters of the way through his first season as a starting tight end for the Irish, Troy Niklas is well on his way to continuing the tradition of “Tight End U”.
Originally projected by most recruitniks as either an offensive tackle or defensive tackle out of Servite High School in Anaheim, Niklas has proven to be much too athletic on both sides of the ball to play along either line. As a freshman, Niklas played at outside linebacker before moving over to tight end last season. Initially the move took NIklas a while to get used to, but heading down the home stretch of his junior season, NIklas is close to posting some numbers none of his recent predecessors were able to while at Notre Dame.
Last year Niklas caught just five passes for 75 yards with a single touchdown and never caught more than one pass in a single game. This year, Niklas has a catch in every game and multiple receptions in five out of eight games. His touchdown total though is what has him ahead of the pace that Eifert, Kyle Rudolph, or almost any other tight end has set though.
If Niklas catches just one more touchdown over the final five games of the season, he will tie Ken McAfee for the most touchdowns in a single season by a Notre Dame tight end with 6. Eifert’s single season best for Notre Dame was five in 2011. Rudolph had three twice in 2009 and 2010 though he could have challenged the mark in 2010 had he not missed half of the season. Carlson and Fasano’s best single season touchdown totals were four.
Catching five touchdowns at this point in the season alone is impressive for a tight end, but the way in which Niklas has done it has been even more impressive. Against Temple in week one, Niklas raced 66 yards for his first touchdown of the season. A week later he helped get the Irish back in the game against Michigan in the third quarter. He did the same against Oklahoma with a 30 yard score at the beginning of the fourth. Against Arizona State, Niklas bailed out Tommy Rees on a heave to the endzone by using his massive frame to block out a much smaller Sun Devil defender for a third quarter score.
Whether it’s been from close or far, Niklas has found a way to find the endzone this season.
The next step for Niklas, aside from continuing to refine his blocking, will be to become more of a consistent threat in the passing game. Niklas was quiet last week as Tommy Rees found his young wide receivers early and often and he had a few quiet games early in the season. At his current pace though, Niklas will catch 33 passes for 533 yards with 8 touchdowns.
Niklas’s impact hasn’t been limited to the playing field either. His work in the community and on campus has been well documented by both Dan Murphy of Blue and Gold and Matt Fortuna of ESPN showing that Niklas is living up to the playing reputation of “Tight End U” as well as exemplifying the off the field virtues preached by and instilled into its players by the University of Notre Dame.
And Niklas is just getting started.
“His size and athleticism and all those things are starting to show themselves,” Brian Kelly said a few weeks back. ”I think now he’s starting to use his athletic ability, and he’s so much more comfortable with the position himself,” he added.
At his current pace, Niklas is also likely to continue Notre Dame’s recent trend of having tight ends drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. Fasano, Carlson, and Rudolph were all second rounders while Eifert was the first Notre Dame tight end to get drafted in the first round since Irv Smith.
Niklas has spent this year getting comfortable with being one of the primary targets in the Notre Dame passing game. Five more games of experience in that role along with another full off-season should have Niklas ready for a leadership role next year in what figures to be potentially a prolific offense.
Next year is a long way away though. There is still a lot for Niklas to accomplish this year such as picking up that 6th touchdown to tie McAfee. With Navy on tap this weekend, Niklas may reach that milestone sooner rather than later.
Not bad for a guy many people pegged to be an offensive tackle at this level, huh?