If there’s been a single day with more disappointing news stories for Notre Dame fans than today, I can’t remember it. Late Thursday night reports surfaced that junior tight end Troy Niklas is leaving Notre Dame early and declaring himself eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft.
Add Niklas early departure to Thursday’s news of Matt Dickerson decommitting from Notre Dame and Davaris Daniels being suspended for the spring semester and you have a trio of terrible news for Notre Dame fans all in less than 24 hours.
Just a few weeks ago Niklas had told the media before the Pinstripe Bowl that he fully planned on returning to Notre Dame for his senior season. Once reports surfaced that Nikals received a 2nd-4th round grade from the NFL Advisory Committee though his comments with regards to the draft were not as definitive.
Now we know why. Niklas became the third Notre Dame junior to the declare for this year’s NFL Draft – an unprecedented number of Notre Dame underclassmen to bypass their senior seasons in favor of declaring for the NFL Draft. Stephon Tuitt declared for the draft on Sunday as most expected and on Wednesday George Atkinson surprised most when he too declared for the Draft.
In his first season as a full time starting tight end for Notre Dame, Niklas caught 32 passes for 498 yards and 5 touchdowns – numbers similar to the production of Tyler Eifert in 2012. Even with strong numbers, NIklas’s early exit comes as a bit of a shocker to most as no one could have envisioned that Niklas would be in position to leave early for the NFL after just his second season playing at tight end.
Prior to 2014, head coach Brian Kelly had done an amazing job of recruiting high profile juniors to return for their senior seasons. Michael Floyd, Manti Te’o, Tyler Eifert, Zack Martin, and Louis Nix all could have left Notre Dame earlier than they did, but all returned at least for their senior seasons. Efiert and Nix had eligibiltiy remaining when they did leave for the NFL, but completed their senior seasons and gained their degrees.
Luckily for Notre Dame Ben Koyack began to emerge in 2013 as a viable receiving threat at tight end, but Niklas departure will thrust either Mike Heuermann or Durham Smythe into a much more prominent role than either imaged they would have in 2014. Given Koyack’s receiving skills and problems with blocking, Smythe may be in the line for the bigger role as the better blocker between he and Heurmann. Notre Dame also has two tight ends in the current 2014 recruiting class in Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar.
In our list of 2014 New Year’s resolutions for Notre Dame, we had hoped for a quiet off-season after the tumultuous off-season Notre Dame endured in 2012. Well, the calendar reads January 9 and Notre Dame has already had three juniors declare for the NFL Draft, a key defensive lineman decommit in favor of UCLA, and lost its leading returning wide receiver for Spring practice.
So much for a quiet, drama-less off-season.