Troy Niklas

Niklas to tight end adds plenty of offensive options

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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

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.