Mar 21, 2012, 5:41 PM EDT
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