Mar 2, 2012, 3:08 PM EDT
If there was a surprise on the defense last season, it was the emergence of outside linebacker Troy Niklas. Dubbed Hercules by his teammates, the hulking freshman — who measures up as impressively as any athlete on the team at a shade under 6-foot-7 and 250-pounds — saw time at the drop linebacker position and even along the defensive line in pass rush situations, emerging as one of the many promising athletes lining up on Bob Diaco’s side of the ball.
When Niklas gave his pledge to the Irish as a Signing Day surprise, Notre Dame fans were expecting a potential left tackle prospect or perhaps another jumbo sized tight end. And after a freshman season that would seemingly have Niklas as the odds-on favorite at the drop linebacker position (and potentially a better fit at the cat linebacker) heading into spring ball, Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated reports that Niklas might be switching sides of the ball.
Here’s more from Sampson’s report on Niklas working with the tight ends during voluntary drills, including a pretty flattering comparison by Niklas’ former Servite high school coach Troy Thomas:
The defensive staff is cognizant that losing Niklas would take a playmaker off the field, one who started a game at drop linebacker and helped at nose guard in pass rushing situations. But with Danny Spond and Ben Councell as drop backers with Ishaq Williams worth a look, the Irish might be able to switch Niklas.
Niklas played tight end during his junior year at Servite before working at offensive tackle as a senior. He also played defensive end, defensive tackle and nose guard.
“He’s just so athletic,” said Servite head coach Troy Thomas. “I think his best position would actually be left tackle. We had a guy that’s going out this year in (USC’s) Matt Kalil and I think Troy is in that same line. He’s very athletic, long armed, tough, get after you type of guy. I see those guys as being very similar.
“But I think he can be an excellent tight end, run, catch, has really good hands. The process for him is going to be route running. As a blocker, he’ll be excellent. He’s got good hands and should be athletic enough to do it.”
The move at first glance is a head-scratcher. Moving Niklas, who out-performed fellow freshman Ishaq Williams last season, doesn’t seem to help get the best Irish athletes on the football field. With Tyler Eifert returning after an All-American campaign, Niklas would be a developmental project this spring, and could potentially eat reps that could go to Ben Koyack, who had a promising freshman campaign, not to mention Alex Welch, who head coach Brian Kelly has been complimentary of as well.
Of course, the potential move also could speak to the optimism the staff has for redshirt freshman Ben Councell and possibly junior Danny Spond, who has always seemed to get flattering praise from Kelly, though hasn’t seen it translate to time on the field. With Prince Shembo likely sliding into Darius Fleming’s position, Williams still a rising star in the staff’s eyes, and backers like Spond and Councell, perhaps it’s an embarrassment of riches that makes Niklas’ move a possibility.
One more wild card in all of this is new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, who got a daily look at Niklas on the defensive side of the ball. With the Irish offense more mysterious than ever, perhaps Martin and Kelly are looking at the wealth they’ll potentially have with big-bodied tight ends, and the relative inexperience at the wide receiving positions. The opportunity to go with a more tight end heavy scheme, like the New England Patriots deployed this season with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez the primary options outside of slot receiver Wes Welker, has to be in Kelly and Martin’s minds.
The move is far from finalized, and Notre Dame experimented with moving offensive linemen Lane Clelland to defensive end before bringing him back to the offensive side of the ball. And while people focused on Jonas Gray’s fumble, what’s forgotten is that linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Steve Filer, not to mention defensive end Ethan Johnson, were on the field in a goalline set, something that was quickly abandoned after that game (and possibly) season-changing turnover. It’s possible Niklas is merely cross-training.
Either way, the idea that Niklas, who looked like a building block on defense, would switch to the offensive side of the ball, shows you that the Irish coaching staff is clearly looking for ways to make this team better.