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Niklas switching sides of the ball?

Mar 2, 2012, 3:08 PM EDT

Troy Niklas

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.

  1. dickasman - Mar 2, 2012 at 3:15 PM

    Switching Sides? HOLY CRAP! Becareful there….When I read the title, I thought somebody was coming out of the closet, WHEWWWWWWW! Greg Louganis moment dodged.

    Anywhoo……Question is why? I thought we had the perennial #1 TE’s in the country in Koyack and Welch? Do they suck that bad? or is it because Niklas suck at the position he was playing?

    I really believe Niklas would be best served by playing the edge rushing the QB as a pass rusher like JJ Watt did with Wisconsin. What da hell’s he gonna do at TE?

    • 04domergrad - Mar 2, 2012 at 6:25 PM

      Classic negativity. Maybe Koyack doesn’t SUCK at TE. Maybe Welch doesn’t SUCK too. And maybe Niklas doesn’t SUCK at LB.

      What if Councelll and Spond are sneaky good… and Niklas could be a stud LT. I’m gonna trust the coaches on this one… Let the big skill guys play where they can make the biggest impact.

      Check out that glass. It’s not always half-empty.

      • dickasman - Mar 2, 2012 at 6:32 PM

        Classic brainwashed over exuberant ND fan. Undefeated next year right?

  2. smurphdoggy29 - Mar 2, 2012 at 3:45 PM

    Keith,
    I have to be honest when I first started reading this piece I was perplexed by the science, or thought, behind it.

    When I saw the New England comparison it made a bit of sense. Yes we do have potentially two excellent guys in Welch (I am also an Alum from his High School so I am biased there) and Koyack on the rise, yet when you look at it from a raw physical point of view it makes you optimistic. Given the Patriots slant with their two meat eaters putting a guy with the nickname “Hercules” at Tight End seems pretty opportunistic by the Coaching Staff.

    I view it thusly, if you have your guys who are primarily pass catchers (Eifert, Koyack, Welch) at one TE slot and a havoc wreaking machine like Niklas aka Gronk at the other seeking and destroying all the while carrying the secret weapon of pass catching as well it does present quite the intriguing possibility. I would hope the Coaches would see this.

    Also with Coach Kelly and the Staff consistently selling the point that they constantly self evaluate and develop themselves and their players then this comes as no surprise, the surprise would be if it had NOT happened. Also it leaves the curious awaiting the next potential nugget !

    Onward and upward Troy ! It can only help Notre Dame and Troy in the long run !

    Keith, what is the progress with the young man on the Mormon mission and also what is going on with Luke Massa and Austin Collinsworth ? Keep up the good work Keith !!

    Keep the Faith Irish followers !

    • 1historian - Mar 3, 2012 at 5:22 PM

      This guy seems able to play just about any place he pleases, his TEAMMATES call him ‘Hercules’, but as far as I know we don’t have another Tom Brady on the squad to get that spheroid out there to one of the TEs or anyone else, so perhaps this optimism should be curbed.

      Ah the hell with it!! It’s March 3 and there are still 181 days to go until the kickoff. We gotta do something!!

  3. nudeman - Mar 2, 2012 at 3:53 PM

    I’d like to see him stay on D. The irish already have strength and depth at TE.

    The interesting thing in the article that Keith didn’t mention is that there is consideration being given to letting Eifert play some WR. Prob not as an every play WR, but maybe split him out 5-10 plays per game like the Bears used to do with Greg Olsen.

    Big target, great hands and respectable speed for a WR. Would be a handful for a CB to outjump in the endzone or a LB to cover running a deeper route.

    • dickasman - Mar 2, 2012 at 4:39 PM

      Boy, normally I am completely against guys coming out early but I think Eifert should’ve came out early this year. He probably would’ve been the first or 2nd TE taken.

      • 1historian - Mar 3, 2012 at 5:38 PM

        Richard – please work on your english. (I assume it’s your first language.) ‘Eifert should’ve came out’. Wrong – it should read “Eifert should’ve COME out. Surely you know we are looking to you for leadership in this all-important field.

        also: in nateprezforirish’s 7:25 post, he refers to your ‘amazing football IQ’.

        Finally – RECOGNITION!!!

        (True) story. Summer 1969. Some friends had gotten married and we were at the reception somewhere in S.B. and CAPTAIN ELECTRIC AND THE FLYING LAPELS were playing at the reception. At some point Ara Parseghian came into the room and of course everyone knew who he was and we were all trying (unsuccessfully) to be cool about it and then he came up to Geoff Gillette and asked “how many players in your orchestra?”

        True story

  4. pacific123ocean - Mar 2, 2012 at 4:23 PM

    I have no idea what his best position will be, but I find he quote from his high school coach very interesting, and would lead me to believe he will be more of blocking tight end.

    I will trust that the ND coaches are doing what’s best for Troy and the team.

  5. bernhtp - Mar 2, 2012 at 4:38 PM

    I always thought that Eifert playing WR was an intriguing possibility. After all, his size, hands, speed, and general athleticism are at least comparable to Jeff Samardzija.

  6. kiopta1 - Mar 2, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    I was under the impression that he was doing well at LB. However, I am not in the locker room nor am I on the practice field so I will not coach from my sofa on this. Go ND!

  7. jimbasil - Mar 2, 2012 at 5:57 PM

    After the Theo Riddick change I’m trepidatious of all moves between positions by Kelly once the student has established himself in one. The Riddick decision was a head scratcher as much then as it is now, so moving an up-and-comer from defense to the offense, cramming an already loaded position, has me again, scratching my head once again saying, “Oh well”.

    It’s not Niklas’s athleticism or desire that has me concerned as much as it is the time taken to learn a new position and in this case, getting the reps needed to be productive in an entirely new system for him. Somehow it also makes the other students take time out from their own valuable learning curve waiting on a newbie to catch up so they too can get on with learning and establishing their play solidifying their timing.

    • dickasman - Mar 2, 2012 at 6:33 PM

      CilantroJimbobs, we are in agreement! Does BK have ADHD or what?

      • nateprez4irish - Mar 2, 2012 at 7:25 PM

        Perhaps BK and company are looking for some ideas and really just leak these ideas (i.e. Nicklas and Eifert) to Keith who put them out for dickasman’s approval because of his amazing football IQ. Then all other comments and banter give them even more ideas of how to use their personnel. Or maybe the coaching staff all sit around drinking beers and see how many arm chair coaches there really are who have ‘the answer’ to wake up the echoes. All in good fun and I personally love reading the comments and opinions on here. The conversations are what make ND so interesting to follow and thanks, Keith for your continued updates and insight. Go Irish!

    • 1historian - Mar 3, 2012 at 5:25 PM

      Don’t take this as being snarky but – when you are as athletic as this guy is reputed to be – learning a new position on the football field really shouldn’t be that much of a problem.

      • jimbasil - Mar 5, 2012 at 4:41 PM

        Don’t take this as me being snarky back to you – I didn’t say switching positions would be a problem for Niklas. >>> ” It’s not Niklas’s athleticism or desire that has me concerned as much as it is the time taken to learn a new position and in this case, getting the reps needed to be productive in an entirely new system for him.”<<<<< Though I did make a slight comparison to Riddick's change, the post was clearly meant as an athlete changing positions. I'd like to add, I remember all of everybody saying, the Riddick switch to Receiver was a great idea. Yeah, well, no, it wasn't all that swell.

        My post is clearly about Niklas being an obvious stud on D and he obviously was going to contribute to the Irish D in a big way this coming year and that taking him away from learning more on D this year will only go to slowing down his growth there.

        Maybe he is the second coming on O, but I'm "trepidatious".

  8. nateprez4irish - Mar 2, 2012 at 7:32 PM

    And with all this about utilizing everyone’s best talents, we may suggest they use Rees as a pooch punter on long 3rd downs or from the 35 when into the wind next year which would also give him an opportunity to utilize his strengths. By 2013 Golson will be a running back and Hendrix will be backing up or platooning with Keil against teams they need to spread out with the run. QB controversy settled. Thoughts?

  9. gracehall1980 - Mar 3, 2012 at 12:14 AM

    I believe I’ve read (I’m old but not quite that old) that Parseghian moved a lot of players around. But my recollection was that it more frequently involved moving the great athletes from offense to defense. That was ALWAYS the first priority. All things considered I’d prefer to see Troy on the defensive side of the football. Defense truly does win championships and Kelly and company (I’m excited about Coach Martin) should be able to manufacture enough points without Troy to win.

    • 9irish - Mar 3, 2012 at 11:44 AM

      I buy that…then again I don’t profess to having the inside “scoop” that some do today in this non-Parseghian world. I just leave it to them and bitch about it if it doesn’t work, not beforehand. I think people’s natural football tendencies shouldn’t normally be switched around on a whim, however.

  10. jmset3 - Mar 3, 2012 at 12:21 PM

    Not sure why all the concern about leaving Niklas leaving the defensive side of the ball. Just because he outperformed Ishaq in their freshman campaign, doesn’t guarantee it will continue. Ishaq showed flashes of absolute brilliance that can not be taught. The kid is a freak, and will have a ton of success in the future.

    And it’s not like the offensive line is completely foreign to Niklas. It is a position he has played before. The learning curve will not be that steep. This is a great decision, if in fact is true. This is especially true following the completion of the most recent recruiting class that came up short in offensive lineman signatures on NSD.

    • nudeman - Mar 3, 2012 at 12:30 PM

      jimset3,
      I ask this without sarcasm: What “flashes of absolute brilliance” are you referring to?

      I was very excited about this kid but what I saw was a very limited number of snaps and nothing in the way of him making any big plays. He’s not hard to spot, based on the fact that he wears #1. And I also remember BK saying that – in so many words – the kid lacked intensity.

      What did I miss?

  11. jmset3 - Mar 3, 2012 at 2:02 PM

    His overall game left much to be desired, there is no question about that. However, there times while on the field where he would either turn a corner or close on a ball carrier with speed not typical of a man his size.

    His brilliance comes in the form of attributes that are unteachable (Combination of size and speed.)

    I viewed his lack of intensity as more of a lack of decision making, often found in freshman. With proper decision making comes confidence in your actions. Confidence in yourself will allow for more emotions to come out on the field. It’s very hard to express raw emotion when you are worried about making the wrong decision all the time.

    Some freshman are better at overcoming this challenge than others. It’s not an intelligence issue. It’s more related to confidence.

    • nudeman - Mar 3, 2012 at 2:38 PM

      Good points.
      I’m high on the guy, based purely on everything we read when they got him.
      I’d bet he was on the field for less than 100 snaps (not counting special teams) last year

      The returns so far are an indication that:
      1) He’s not as good as billed; or
      2) Just needs time to develop like most freshmen do

      Hope it’s #2

      • jmset3 - Mar 3, 2012 at 3:46 PM

        Some players never get over the freshman experience hump (Deion Walker), so I’m begging for #2!!!

  12. nateluvsnd - Mar 4, 2012 at 3:50 PM

    I like to see as many playmakers as possible on defense, and seems like this guy is
    a nfl caliber athlete. We will trust BK for now…..btw nudeman you are awesome, you too dicksaman!

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