Apr 8, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT
It’s been a nice run at tight end for Notre Dame over the past decade. The Irish have produced more than their share of early-round NFL tight ends, with Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, and Kyle Rudolph soon to be joined by Tyler Eifert. After learning the position on the fly last season after playing his freshman season at linebacker, Troy Niklas has the potential to join that group.
“He can be as good as he wants to be,” tight ends coach Scott Booker said.
One look at Niklas and it’s easy to understand why. At 6-foot-7, he’s bigger than all his impressive predecessors. With a physique that looks sculpted from granite, he’s also the most physically imposing of the group. And while he might not have the receiver skills of a Eifert, or be as rugged and versatile as Fasano yet, Niklas has a diversity of skills you just don’t see in a guy that a ton of people expected to grow into a left tackle.
As the Irish offense evolves with the departure of Eifert, the team’s main pass catching option last season, the tight end position will continue to change. With Niklas the leader at the position, and veteran depth provided by Alex Welch and Ben Koyack, that likely means a return to a more traditional use of the position, taking advantage of the depth chart’s improved physicality.
“We’re just looking to progress the offense in every aspect,” Booker said, when asked about playing without their Mackey Award winner. “At tight end specifically we’re looking to progress the offense by being able to block in-line, but also being able to be a receiving threat down the field. However we can do that we’re able to do that.”
Those duty seem a custom fit for the Southern California native, who has come a long way since flip-flopping the five and eight on his jersey after an impressive rookie season. With a preseason injury to Alex Welch, Niklas was given a baptism under fire last season, learning on the fly the intricacies of a pretty demanding position.
“Tight end means being able to block and receive and do all the things you guys see us doing,” Booker said. “If you would see the Troy in the Michigan game and the Troy in the USC game it’s really not the same guy.
“Then just to see the progress again from the end of last season to now spring. I enjoy those guys really maturing, getting confidence in their abilities and getting better with technique.”
With the depth chart clear in front of Niklas, the opportunity is there for him to thrive, especially in an offense where touches will likely be distributed a little bit more evenly by returning starter Everett Golson.
He may not be the pass catching machine that Eifert was the past few season, but Niklas’ ability to play big along the line of scrimmage or release and wreak havoc in the pass game as a big body mismatch could help turn him into the next great Irish tight end.