Troy Niklas

Niklas switching sides of the ball?

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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.

Restocking the roster: Running Backs

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs for a 26-yard gain against the USC Trojans in the first half of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s running back depth chart was tested to its max less than 10 minutes into the season opener. The projected two-deep, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, were both lost for the year—Bryant out of school as an academic and disciplinary casualty by the start of fall camp and Folston because of a knee injury suffered on his third carry of the season.

Welcome back to Notre Dame, Autry Denson.

The school’s all-time leading rusher in his first season as a running back coach had to be feeling a little woozy. He had a converted wide receiver taking featured-back carries and a true freshman a little over a year removed from his own major knee injury serving as his primary backup.

That the Irish had their most prolific running season under Brian Kelly says quite a bit about the job that Denson did. It’s also a credit to the offensive line blocking, the adjusted scheme that also protected two new starting quarterbacks, and the talent that remained at the position.

Spring presents new challenges. Tarean Folston should be a little over seven months removed from ACL surgery, making him doubtful to do anything more than wear a red jersey. With C.J. Prosise‘s departure, Adams goes from record-setting rookie to spring starter, with Williams likely carrying a large load as well.

Tony Jones Jr. and Deon McIntosh arrive this summer, reinforcements on the way. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the pre-spring roster at running back.

 

DEPARTURES
C.J. Prosise (156 carries 1,032 yards, 11 TDs)
Greg Bryant (lost preseason 2015)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Josh Adams (117 carries, 835 yards, 6 TDs)
Dexter Williams (21 carries, 81 yards, 3 TDs)
Tony Jones Jr.
Deon McIntosh 

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Tarean Folston,* Sr.
Josh Adams, Soph.
Dexter Williams, Soph.
Justin Brent,* Junior

*Additional year of eligibility remaining.

 

ANALYSIS: This might be a position battle deferred to fall camp, especially if Folston is still in recovery mode. At this point, it doesn’t make sense to rush back from an ACL tear for 15 practices, so while the rising senior may be chomping at the bit to return, it’s better to save it until August.

Folston will likely be the team’s most versatile back, but keeping Adams off the field will be a hard chore. His breakaway speed was on display multiple times in 2015, with his record-setting run against Wake Forest the team’s longest play from scrimmage. Adams also likely added some mass and physicality to his game in the offseason weigh-training program, giving the Irish someone capable of hitting the big play and also moving the sticks in short yardage situations.

The staff believes that Dexter Williams is a talented back, so with three solid contributors on the roster before Jones or McIntosh hit campus, it’ll be fun to see how snaps get sorted. (From that perspective, you can only wonder how they’d have dealt with the champagne problem of having Prosise around…) Justin Brent remains an option as well, though the attrition from the receiving corps makes you think he’ll be back at receiver.

The wildcard in all of this is Folston. He’s a unique talent with natural ability you just can’t teach. If he’s fully recovered and ready to engage in a position battle, there won’t likely be a drop off even with the early departure of Prosise.

 

Notre Dame gets 10 invites to NFL Scouting Combine

2013 NFL Combine
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Notre Dame will send ten former players to the NFL Scouting Combine. The annual event in Indianapolis serves as the unofficial apex of draft season, a meat-market where the best professional prospects are poked, prodded, questioned and tested in a variety of on- and off-field drills.

Heading to the festivities from Notre Dame are:

Chris Brown, WR
Sheldon Day, DT
Will Fuller, WR
Nick Martin, C
Romeo Okwara, DE
C.J. Prosise, RB
KeiVarae Russell, CB
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, OLB
Ronnie Stanley, OT

For a prospect like Smith, it’ll be teams first opportunity to talk to the elite prospect and check his progress medically as he returns from a Fiesta Bowl knee injury. Russell will also be a non-participant in physical drills, waiting until Notre Dame’s Pro Day to go through testing.

Invites to Chris Brown, Romeo Okwara and Elijah Shumate are crucial in finding their way into the draft, as the three former Irish starters participated in the Shrine Bowl, where scouts had an early look at them. Likewise, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day continue their ascent, both coming off strong Senior Bowl weeks.

For Irish fans, it’ll be fun to watch early-enrollees Fuller and Prosise test. Both are expected to be some of the fastest players at their position. Brown may also have the ability to surprise teams, with his track background and leaping ability capable of earning him an extended look. Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley will look to impress as well, hoping to check out as one of the draft’s most impressive athletes at offensive tackle.

Ohio State led all schools with 14 invites. National Champion Alabama had nine former players invited.

 

WR Corey Robinson named Notre Dame student body president

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On Wednesday, wide receiver Corey Robinson added another impressive title to his resume as a student-athlete at Notre Dame: Student Body President.

The junior, paired with classmate Becca Blais as his vice presidential running mate, won a majority of the votes cast by his fellow students, a runaway winner with 59.4% of the votes, nearly triple the next highest vote getter.

Robinson posted the following on Twitter, thankful for the opportunity to serve his fellow students:

Robinson’s time at Notre Dame has been filled with accomplishments both on and off the field. He was named an Academic All-American as a sophomore. He’s a six-time Dean’s List member in the prestigious Program of Liberal Studies and is also pursuing a sustainability minor. He’s won the team’s Rockne Student-Athlete Award as well.

That’s quite a bit on the plate of Notre Dame’s lone senior wide receiver. But as you might expect, Robinson is well prepared for the next challenge ahead.

“I’ve planned ahead, gotten all of my hard work out of the way this semester, and I’m finishing up my senior thesis,” Robinson told The Observer. “I’m doing all the hard stuff now so in the fall and the spring, I just have to take two classes pretty much.”

Robinson’s other contributions as a student-athlete at Notre Dame include One Shirt one Body, an opportunity for college athletes to donate their athletic apparel to local communities. Robinson has presented the plan to the ACC as well as the NCAA, earning immediate support from both organizations.

 

Mailbag: Now Open (scheduling input requested)

UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JUNE 01:  Actors Mike Myers (L) and Dana Carvey as Wayne and Garth from "Wayne's World" onstage during the 17th annual MTV Movie Awards held at the Gibson Amphitheatre on June 1, 2008 in Universal City, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Okay folks, we’ve had enough semi-positive encouragement to keep the video mailbag going for another week. With that said, I’ll need some reader participation to keep this thing rolling on.

As always, submit your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold. You can also ask your questions live via Facebook. You’ll need to LIKE THIS PAGE first, and then at the appropriate time, head on over to watch and participate.

To that point, let’s pick a time that works for everyone. Right now, here are the options that work at Inside the Irish HQ.  Weigh in and the best time wins. (How’s that for a democracy?)

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