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Niklas to tight end adds plenty of offensive options

Mar 21, 2012, 5:41 PM EDT

Troy Niklas

The move of Troy Niklas to tight end is fascinating. After impressing on defense as a true freshman at outside linebacker (and even moving to the nose guard in certain pass rush situations), Niklas seemed poised to be a frontrunner for an outside linebacker position heading into spring practice. Even if the ‘dog’ linebacker position, playing on the wide side of the field and often times in space and in coverage, wasn’t a natural fit for a physically gifted played with Niklas’ size, a shallow depth chart and an impressive freshman season had many believing that Niklas was a future building block on defense.

That’s what makes the shift to tight end all the more compelling. After turning down blue-chip tight end Taylor McNamara (who instead chose to go to Oklahoma) in recruiting, many assumed the Irish were set with Tyler Eifert, Ben Koyack, Alex Welch and Jake Golic. But when news broke this offseason that Niklas was working out with the offense, more than a few eyebrows were raised.

Today gave Irish fans their first chance to take a look at the converted tight end, a move confirmed yesterday by head coach Brian Kelly. Multiple reports said Niklas towered over the other tight ends, which is pretty impressive when you consider Eifert is listed at 6-foot-6, Koyack at 6-foot-5 and Welch and Golic 6-foot-4.  At what looks like 6-foot-7, and a shredded 250 pounds, Niklas is one of those freakish athletes that will give the Irish plenty of options.

After practice this morning, Kelly discussed what he’s hoping to get from Niklas, who fits a much different profile than the other tight ends on the roster. So much so, that his high school coach compared him to future top NFL pick and former USC left tackle Matt Kalil.

“The first thing that we want him to do is be an in-line blocker for us,” Kelly said of Niklas. “We want to be able to run the ball effectively. We didn’t just put him in there just because he’s 6-7 and we can get a match-up. That’s part of it. We’ve got an athletic tight end in Tyler Eifert. What we were looking for was a bigger body guy that can be a great in-line blocker but can also give us that size element.”

It’s hard not to think of the New England Patriots offense when you consider what Chuck Martin should be able to do with his tight ends. It’s premature to compare Niklas to Rob Gronkowski when he hasn’t caught a pass in college, but the ability to detach Eifert and let him become a gigantic match-up problem with corners and safeties while also having another left tackle-sized tight end on the field gives you some very interesting schematic choices. Kelly, for his part, didn’t shy away from the Patriots comparison.

“If you look at some of the models that are out there, New England Patriots for example, their utilization of Gronkowski and Hernandez,” Kelly explained. “We see Tyler as more of a Hernandez kind of player. I think we know what the Patriots did, they had him in the backfield running plays. Tyler Eifert has that ability to be moved all over the field. He can be to the wide field, to the short field, it just gives up more flexibility.”

The Minnesota Vikings decided to replicate the Patriots scheme when they made a splash in free agency and paired former Irish tight end John Carlson with fellow Domer Kyle Rudolph. This current Irish team won’t have to pay big in free agency to put some excellent tight ends on the field, with Koyack looking plenty improved after a freshman season that put him on the map.

With the Irish offense showing a significant skill

  1. deadpanicked - Mar 21, 2012 at 6:11 PM

    I like that they are moving Niklas to tight end, in part, to make it easier to feature Eifert. Eifert, more than any individual wide receivers, is the one who will really have to step up and carry the load with Michael Floyd gone. He will be the one that defenses will be accounting for first in the passing game and will need to play the role of roving mismatch and decoy that Floyd played for the past couple of seasons. I also like that Kelly highlighted Niklas’ potential to help in the run game, but I will believe that when I see it.

  2. bernhtp - Mar 21, 2012 at 6:21 PM

    The way Kelly described the use is virtually identical to what I envisioned in an earlier post. This will make the offense far more multidimensional, especially with a mobile QB.

  3. smurphdoggy29 - Mar 21, 2012 at 6:25 PM

    I love this guy and what an exciting move !

    Can’t wait to see if it pans out ! I remain firm in my commitment that the Irish Wide Receiver Corps as a complete unit is going to go nuclear this season, they will explode onto the scene (while no one will forget Floyd) and wipe away all doubt and insecurity about the pass catchers ! I am really convinced of that, let’s wait and see.

    As for Hercules his move to Tight End is exciting and I believe with the new OC that they are going to employ a copy cat of New England’s use of their Tight End’s. Providing a nightmare scenario for anyone who would have to cover not only Eifert, but most any of the Tight Ends.

    Now, let the production take over.

    Please.

    GO Irish ! It’s gotta Motta when the Slaughter begins !

    • nudeman - Mar 22, 2012 at 12:47 PM

      smurph
      Love the optimism, but other than TJ Jones (who’s actually more of a “slot” type body), they’ve got a bunch of rookies at WR and most likely a rookie QB.
      Timing and route running are things that take time.

      I see this as more of a learning year for the WRs and QB.

      • bernhtp - Mar 22, 2012 at 1:04 PM

        We have spring, summer and then two games (Navy and Purdue) to get the rookies up to speed before they will need to step up big time. It’s imperative that a starting QB emerge more quickly than last year and get the needed reps.

  4. dickasman - Mar 21, 2012 at 7:18 PM

    Makes sense now…it didn’t to me initially but it does now…smurph, Im sure you mean well but you should leave the ebonics to me. I almost vomited reading your last line. You need to dig deeper soooon!

    Hopefully any one of the WR’s step up and has a breakout season.

  5. ndfanwabashman - Mar 21, 2012 at 10:00 PM

    Yo soy fiesta!

  6. mattnef - Mar 21, 2012 at 10:38 PM

    Sad to see him leave the defense … but … Golson, Eifert, Niklas, Koyak, Wood, and Ridick/Atkinson/Neal/Toma sounds like an awesome personnel group. I love the flexibility of a 3TE group with 1 TE that can split out as a WR or line up tight into a power formation. I enjoy the thought of Kelly and Martin locked in a room somewhere drawing things up for a great 2012.

  7. mattnef - Mar 21, 2012 at 10:46 PM

    Keith,
    Is there a part of the article that is missing? The last line looks like it was cut off.

  8. joeschulz - Mar 22, 2012 at 9:24 AM

    The matchup problems are incredible. A 6-7 basketball player playing jump ball with a 5-8 to 6-2 defender . . . when you add in his girth, there is no question. Are you kidding? The kid is extraordinarily talented. Getting him on the field takes an incredible amount of pressure off Eifert. If he can block, and with the new line coach that is NOT a question, the Irish offense just got a lot better.

  9. jrct2450yahoo - Mar 22, 2012 at 11:19 AM

    Just remember guys, it all depends on the QB getting the ball to them. And on this the jury is still out…..

    • 1historian - Mar 22, 2012 at 2:44 PM

      Yours is a good point indeed, but here it is March 22, the 1st day of spring, there are 162 more days until the kickoff, so – reality be damned!!

  10. dmac4real - Mar 22, 2012 at 11:32 AM

    Wait….so did McNamara want to commit and we said no?

  11. alsatiannd - Mar 22, 2012 at 1:40 PM

    With all of Weis’s connection and lineages with the Patriots, it will be ironic if Kelly, not Weis, makes us look like the Patriots. Or did I just fail freshman composition again?

    • 1historian - Mar 22, 2012 at 2:50 PM

      It has been 7 long years since Weis left the Pats. He is now in Kansas with Ragone and Crist. If we looked like the Pats – I would settle for that. (who would play the part of Tom Brady?)

      Whether or not you failed freshman comp. again is a question only you can answer.

      Your handle – are you partial to German Sheperds?

      Not that it matters. I am partial to labs, especially silly ones.

  12. jerseyshorendfan1 - Mar 22, 2012 at 1:58 PM

    I think the TE play will be explosive this year. How many prior seasons have we all spent shouting, “Throw it to the Tight End” while watching ND football? This is going to be interesting, especially with Golson being so mobile and opposing LB’s having to stay home to watch him, that will free up Troy and Tyler, henceforth to be known as TNT (see what I did there Keith with the explosive and dynamite references?) for some big completions. TNT…….you heard it here first. Perhaps I should trademark it like Linsanity but I think its already a band, an AC/DC album, a wrestling duo, a network, etc. Let’s just hope that TNT are, in the immortal words of Jimmy J.J. Walker, “Dy-no-mite.”

  13. irishangst - Mar 22, 2012 at 11:00 PM

    OK, I get the in-line blocking and pass catching possibilities. But “in the backfield running plays?” I hope Kelly means as a blocker, since ND gave up on the fullback concept. Any other purpose gives me scary flashbacks to Mr. Decided Schematic Advantage.

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