Tag: Troy Niklas

Stephon Tuitt

Kelly submits NFL evaluations for Tuitt, Niklas and Atkinson


When catching up with the local media over the weekend, Brian Kelly revealed that he asked the NFL’s advisory committee for evaluations of three juniors: defensive end Stephon Tuitt, tight end Troy Niklas and running back George AtkinsonThe deadline to enter the NFL Draft is January 15. 

That Tuitt would receive an evaluation is a no-brainer. The 6-foot-6, 322-pound defensive end is believed to be a future first round pick when he decides to head to the NFL, a decision Tuitt hasn’t made. After the team’s awards banquet, where Tuitt took home the team’s award for lineman of the year, he shed a bit of light on the decision-making process, saying that he, his mother and Kelly will weigh the pros and cons before making a decision. There’s reason to think that Tuitt can certainly have a better season next year, especially if he enters the offseason healthy.

That evaluation submitted for Niklas also makes sense, as the hulking junior put together a breakout season on his way to becoming a Mackey Award semifinalist. With the NFL becoming more and more dependent on jumbo athletes like Niklas, the Irish’s track record of spitting out NFL talent alone makes him worth a look. Add to that Niklas’ 28 catches and five touchdowns, paired with his size and blocking ability, and you’ve got a guy that’ll be highly valued by NFL teams.

Niklas talked a little bit ($) about the evaluation process, seeing it more as a to-do list for his senior season than an impending decision-maker.

“Definitely some key takeaways, what they think I need to improve in my game,” Niklas told IrishIllustrated.com. “Definitely some good things to work on in the off-season. Just having a little bit of information at the next level so you’re not going into it next year kind of clueless.”

The wild card in all of this is Atkinson. The enigmatic running back led the Irish with 6.0 yards per carry this season, but seemed to disappear just as often as he dominated play. Atkinson’s home run potential is obvious, but after running for 148 yards against Oklahoma, including an 80-yard touchdown run, he ran for just three yards a carry against Arizona State, when he was given 18 carries against the Sun Devils mediocre rush defense.

From then on, he never got more than eight touches in a game, finishing the regular season with just one yard on four carries against Stanford. Atkinson’s size and sprinter speed make him an intriguing NFL prospect, yet you can’t help but think that Atkinson’s chances at being a feature back are gone, and his career on Sundays depends on his kick return abilities and niche skills.

Those that heard this interview last week could wonder if there’s some discontent between the Atkinson family and the Irish coaching staff. In addition to George’s limited touches, twin brother Josh hasn’t made it into the two-deep at cornerback and is now supplying depth at wide receiver. The evaluation could be three-fold for Atkinson. Add an objective third-party, reinforce the coaching staff’s point of view, and satisfy the frustrations of a father who likely only wants what’s best for his sons.

If Irish fans are wondering about a timeline for any NFL decisions, a look back at past years gives you an idea of the timing. Michael Floyd decided to return on January 12. Tyler Eifert decided on January 6. With the Irish bowl game done before the New Year, Tuitt will have plenty of time to make his decision.


Niklas named a Mackey Award semi-finalist

Troy Niklas

A season after teammate Tyler Eifert was named the Mackey Award winner for the best tight end in the country, teammate Troy Niklas was named a semi-finalist. The 6-foot-7, 270-pound junior was one of eight named to the final list.

In his second season at the position, Niklas has 25 catches for 390 yards and five touchdowns, his first year in the starting lineup after apprenticing behind Eifert. In addition to his impressive season as a receiver, Niklas might be one of the country’s most physical blockers at the position.

Other semi-finalists include:

Jace Amaro, Jr. (Texas Tech)
Ted Bolser, Sr. (Indiana)
Eric Ebron, Jr. (North Carolina)
Devin Funchess, Soph. (Michigan)
Gator Hoskins, Sr. (Marshall)
Nick O’Leary, Jr. (Florida State)
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jr. (Washington)

The Mackey Award featured Notre Dame tight ends for almost as long as they’ve been handing out the trophy. Before winning the award, Eifert was a finalist. Before that, Kyle Rudolph was a two-time semi-finalist for the award in both 2010 and 2009. Both John Carlson (2006) and Anthony Fasano (2005) were finalists as well for the award.

Three finalists will be named November 25, with the award handed out on December 12 at the Home Depot College Football Awards.  

Offseason cheat sheet: Tight ends

NCAA Football: Purdue at Notre Dame

Tyler Eifert is gone. The All-American and Mackey Award winner rewrote the Notre Dame record books on his way to being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Not bad for a guy that was a three-star recruit, and a player with a back injury that had many thinking he’d never step foot on the field.

Eifert continued a long line of successful Irish tight ends that have gone on to respectable NFL careers. Starting it off was Anthony Fasano, still cashing a paycheck on Sundays. John Carlson joined Fasano as a second round draft pick and now plays for his home state Vikings. He’s joined by Kyle Rudolph in Minnesota, where the second year player was named the MVP of the Pro Bowl last season.

Without Eifert, the tight end position is hardly bare. Let’s walk through the roster of a position group that’s been very kind to Notre Dame over the past decade, and expects to be this year as well.


Once again, the Irish are in a position to utilize multiple TE sets in their offense, taking advantage of a depth chart filled with veteran players. One of the benefits of Brian Kelly and Bill Belichick’s newfound friendship was Kelly’s chance to have he and his offensive staff pick Belichick and Josh McDaniel’s brain on the different ways to utilize multiple tight end sets. While Belichick won’t have that opportunity as much this year with Rob Gronkowski recovering from surgery and Aaron Hernandez likely spending the rest of his life behind bars, that won’t stop the Irish from getting Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack and Alex Welch on the field together.

Adding two freshmen tight ends in Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe also protects the Irish from the depth chart getting too top heavy, with Niklas, Welch and Koyack all in their third year of competition.

The Irish already have a recruiting commitment from Illinois’ Nic Weishar and are in the mix for Southern California blue-chipper Tyler Luatua as well, so restocking the position is a priority in this cycle.


Here’s a look at the position group, with yesterday’s depth chart worked into the ordering.

1. Troy Niklas, Jr. #85
2. Ben Koyack, Jr. #18
3. Alex Welch, Sr. #82
4. Mike Heuerman, Fr. #9
5. Durham Smythe, Fr. #80


If there’s one position group that’ll likely benefit from Tommy Rees getting back in the saddle, it’s tight end. Rees and Tyler Eifert made sweet, sweet music together in ’10 and ’11, working the vertical seams as well as any combination in college football. While nobody on this roster gets up the field as well as Eifert, there’s every reason to believe that footballs will be coming fast and furious to the tight ends.

Troy Niklas has the best opportunity to be the beneficiary of Rees’ return. Learning on the fly last year as a glorified offensive tackle, Niklas has athleticism that hasn’t truly been revealed, and you get the feeling that he and the staff expect to surprise some people over the next few Saturdays with his ability to make plays down field.

That doesn’t mean we should sleep on Ben Koyack or Alex Welch. Koyack never seemed to get his mojo back after some early drops against Navy and he gave ground to Niklas as an attached blocker. But Koyack has the ability to be dominant at the line of scrimmage as well, and the 261-pounder should take a big step forward this year.

Welch appears to be all the way back from an ACL injury suffered last fall. He’s not the physical specimen that Niklas or Koyack are, but he’s a smooth athlete that will be a productive player this year. If all three guys stay healthy, there will be times when all three could be on the field together, giving the offense true jumbo capabilities.

It’ll be interesting to see if Heuerman or Smythe see the field this year. From a special teams perspective, Heuerman might be the more attractive option, as he’s more of a runner and stood out last season as a defensive player in high school. Both have gotten high praise from the coaching staff, but neither are physically ready to contribute at the line of scrimmage, with Heuerman weighing 225 and Smythe 235.

Counting down the Irish: 10-6

Purdue v Notre Dame

Looking at the first fifteen names we’ve revealed, one pretty clear trend seemed to be emerging. The strength of this team’s depth was on defense. Ten of the players we’ve already rolled out will be defensive contributors. That includes highly touted freshmen Max Redfield and Jaylon Smith, who will have to find a way onto the field for Bob Diaco’s defense.

Of the offensive players listed, only Christian Lombard is a proven commodity. While we’ve talked about the positional flexibility Lombard has, he started 13 games at right tackle, where he’ll open fall camp as the returning starter.

The next five names all but even out our proceedings. They include a nice mix of talented youth and veteran experience, with all five players seemingly on track to be front-line college starters with NFL potential.

Let’s take a look at where where we stand before rolling out our penultimate grouping:

2013 Irish Top 25
25. Max Redfield (S, Fr.)
24. Elijah Shumate (S, Soph.)
23. Jaylon Smith (OLB, Fr.)
22. Ishaq Williams (OLB, Jr.)
21. Greg Bryant (RB, Fr.)
20. Christian Lombard (RT, Sr.)
19. Amir Carlisle (RB, Jr.)
18. Carlo Calabrese (LB, Grad.)
17. Jarrett Grace (LB, Jr.)
16. Matthias Farley (S, Jr.)
15. George Atkinson III (RB, Jr.)
14. Dan Fox (LB, Grad.)
13. Sheldon Day (DE, Soph.)
12. Danny Spond (OLB, Sr.)
11. Tommy Rees (QB, Sr.)


10. Davaris Daniels (WR, Jr.) Entering his third season in the Irish program, where Daniels goes this season will likely give us a better idea of his career trajectory. After redshirting during his freshman season and watching future first round draft pick Michael Floyd, Daniels spent his debut season battling injuries and inconsistency, not all that surprising for a guy taking his first collegiate snaps and depending on a quarterback doing the same.

Daniels made three starts in his eleven games, with an ankle injury and broken collarbone sidetracking him just as he seemed to get rolling. Daniels returned from the collarbone injury against Alabama to provide one of the lone bright spots for the Irish, catching six balls for 115 yards against a talented Crimson Tide defense. Sure, it was with the game mostly in hand for Saban’s crew, but it gives you a glimpse at the tremendous ability that Daniels has when he puts it all together.

That time is now for Daniels, with the Irish offense without a All-American caliber receiving threat for the first time in Kelly’s three seasons. That’s not to say that Daniels doesn’t have that ability, but he’ll need to become the consistent player that many hope is waiting to breakout.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 15th.

9. Troy Niklas (TE, Jr.) That Niklas checks in this high is a testament to the potential of the hulking tight end that should feel much more comfortable a season after learning on the fly as a sophomore. At 6-foot-6.5 and 260-pounds, Niklas has freakish size and strength, and his hands and speed are much better than you’d expect for a man his size.

A season after taking pleasure in learning the mechanics of blocking by flipping sleds, the Irish will ask Niklas to be a more well rounded threat. The Irish coaching staff thinks they have a player that can resemble Rob Gronkowski, and not just in the eclectic personality category.

Niklas caught a modest five balls for 75 yards and a touchdown last season, but was used almost exclusively as an attached blocker that helped power the running game. There were some ugly moments as he played his first season of tight end, but his improvement was well documented as the season went on. Tommy Rees is a fan of using his tight end and Niklas could be the primary beneficiary this season.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 2oth.

8. KeiVarae Russell (CB, Soph.) Entering fall camp as just another body in the running back depth chart, Russell switched sides of the ball and miraculously started all thirteen games for the Irish, putting together a freshman All-American season at cornerback while racking up 58 tackles and two interceptions.

After getting beat for a touchdown pass against Navy in the opener, Russell played with more and more confidence as the season went on, coming up interceptions against both Michigan and USC, the latter a clutch pick against Max Wittek in Irish territory.

It’s still hard to quantify what Russell’s ceiling is as a football player, even after his impressive freshman season. Russell was in the starting lineup mostly out of necessity, with Lo Wood’s season ending Achilles injury putting the Irish into a training camp bind that also saw the Irish temporarily flip Cam McDaniel to the defensive side of the ball as well.

Russell has good enough speed, nice enough size, and clearly has a great head on his shoulders. Spending any time around him you understand that he also has the confidence to be a great cornerback, which goes plenty far. We’ll see by Bob Diaco’s scheme this season how much they trust the duo of Russell and Bennett Jackson to lock down receivers. Never a man coverage defense, adding some to the defensive scheme might tell you all you need to know about the talented sophomore.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 20th.

7. TJ Jones (WR, Sr.) After being stuck in neutral for two seasons, Jones excelled in 2012, taking a big step forward with 649 yards and showing himself as more than just a complementary part of the offense. Jones matched All-American Tyler Eifert’s numbers for both catches and touchdowns, and had a flair for the dramatic, coming up big against both Stanford and Pitt when the Irish needed him most.

Jones will never be a true No. 1 receiver, but he’s getting national attention if only for his consistent body of work and impressive performance against Alabama, where he made seven tough catches. Jones rarely has a ball come his way that he doesn’t catch and had a great knack for getting the tough yards last season.

Quicker than fast, Jones isn’t all that big at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds. But he’s a smooth operator and has worked his way around the Irish offense, starting in the slot and then succeeding last season on the outside. After learning on the fly last season with a new quarterback, Jones is primed for a big season, and could be one of those guys that does enough right to find a nice niche playing on Sundays.

Highest Ranking: 4th.  Lowest Ranking: 14th.

6. Chris Watt (LG, Grad.) That Watt ranks this far down our list goes to show you how much better this roster has gotten personnel wise. In 2010, both Trevor Robinson and Chris Stewart ranked higher on our lists than Watt, with only Robinson latching on to an NFL team as an undrafted free agent. The Irish staff believes Watt is one of the top guards in college football, and at 6-foot-3, 321-pounds, he’s a rough and tumble guy that’s done a lot of good in the trenches for Notre Dame.

Entering his third season as a starter at left guard, Watt and Zack Martin could be one of the best left sides in all of college football. He’ll be counted on to move an already strong running game forward, and should anchor an offensive line that could be one of the strongest in recent memory for the Irish.

It’s hard to truly evaluate the ceiling of an offensive lineman without evaluating an awful lot of game tape, but Watt is one of the best interior linemen on the Irish roster in recent memory.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 10th.


Our voting panel:

Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, ND Nation
John Walters, MediumHappy.com
Ryan Ritter, HerLoyalSons.com
4pointshooter, OneFootDown.com
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish

Counting down the Irish: 20-16

Bennett Jackson 2

RECOUNT UPDATE: If there was any question whether I’ve been out of the finance game too long, your fearless leader messed up his Excel spreadsheet and jacked up the rankings. This changes a few of the players we’ve tallied and puts Zeke Motta in at No. 25. My sincere apologies.


Not surprisingly, the inclusion of quarterback Tommy Rees in the Top 25 rankled more than a few Irish fans ready to turn the page on the Rees era. I’ve spent a few thousand words talking about the pros and cons of Rees at quarterback and have no interest igniting that debate again.

Looking at our first five players, it’s worth noting that two back-up players are more highly regarded than incumbents. For football fans, the back-up quarterback is always the most popular. Apparently, that’s partially true for this panel as well.

If the first five names on this list were interesting, No. 20-16 are down right fascinating. Not one of the players has started a game. Only one is an upperclassmen eligibility wide. (Corrected because I messed up the math.) Yet if you were to look at the five names listed, you could argue these are five of the most important swing players on the roster. Get great seasons out of this group? Notre Dame should surprise some people. Don’t? It could be a long year.

Once again, here’s our voting panel:

Eric Hansen, South Bend Tribune @HansenSouthBend
John Walters, The Daily @jdubs88
John Vannie, NDNation.com
Eric Murtaugh, representing OneFootDown.com  @OneFootDown
Ryan Ritter, representing HerLoyalSons.com @HLS_NDtex
Keith Arnold, NBCSports.com’s Inside the Irish @KeithArnoldNBC

Here’s the list as it stands:

IRISH 2012 Top 25
25. Zeke Motta (S, Sr.)
24. Tommy Rees (QB, Jr.)
23. Andrew Hendrix (QB, Jr.)
22. Davonte Neal (WR, Fr.)
21. TJ Jones (WR, Jr.)


20. Robby Toma (WR, Sr.) Ranking Toma ahead of Jones doesn’t make sense from a statistical point of view. Yet the senior slot receiver, whose best season has yet to yield 20 catches, saw lots of love by our voters, including two votes inside the top 15. Once thought of as just a throw in to help persuade high school teammate Manti Te’o to head to South Bend, Toma has made believers out of fans, players, and coaches, and is expected to hold down the slot receiver job during his final season in South Bend. Toma’s productivity, when given a chance, has always been among the best of the Irish receivers. He’s expected to get a lot of chances this season.

(Highest ranking: 11th. Lowest ranking: Unranked x 3)

19. Christian Lombard (OL, Jr.) It’s not a question of if Lombard is going to play, it’s a question of where. Lombard is the leader in the clubhouse at both right tackle and right guard, and the coaching staff seems comfortable with him at either spot. After sitting out his freshman year, Irish coaches were bullish enough on Lombard that they were fine letting tackle Matt Romine spend his final year of eligibility in Tulsa. Stuck behind veterans Taylor Dever and Trevor Robinson last season, Lombard still logged minutes in all 13 games. He’s a big, physical, ready-to-play grinder that looks to be an anchor along the line for the next three seasons.

(Highest ranking: 12th. Lowest ranking: Unranked x 2)

18. Davaris Daniels (WR, So.) Expectations for Daniels are sky high, as reflected here. We’ve been told he’s talented enough and athletic enough to be a difference maker, but sitting out his freshman season means there had to have been some rough edges that needed to be worked on. Expected to help fill the void left by Michael Floyd, Daniels has the size and speed needed to be a No. 1 wide receiver. We’ve just got no idea if he’s got the ability yet. The Irish coaching staff are certainly hoping he does. With the Irish desperately in need of making some more big-chunk plays down the field, Daniels is a guy that looks to fit the bill.

(Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: 25th)

17. Troy Niklas (TE, So.) After a promising freshman season saw Niklas contribute at outside linebacker and occasionally along the defensive line, head coach Brian Kelly made probably the most ambitious personnel move in his tenure by switching the 6-foot-7, 252-pound sophomore to tight end, where he’ll add another intriguing athlete to a position group that’s awfully talented. Early reports on Niklas have all been mighty impressive, yet the one big question mark is his health. Niklas missed a few spring practices after what was thought to be a concussion. But after being checked by a specialist in Southern California, there’s confidence that those concussions might be a form of ocular migraine headaches, somewhat of a relief. Limitations in the spring mean Niklas will need to take advantage of fall camp if he’s going to be the weapon many believe he’ll be.

(Highest ranking: 11th. Lowest ranking: Unranked x 2)

16. Bennett Jackson (CB, Jr.) If there’s a player I think might be underrated on this list it’s Jackson. Taking over at the boundary cornerback position, the Irish coaching staff is incredibly high on the converted wide receiver, who showed some dynamic athleticism and tackling ability on special teams the past two seasons, and looked at home in limited minutes in the secondary. There may be plenty to worry about in the Irish secondary this year, but Jackson isn’t one. He’s still a raw prospect out on the edge that’s learning the intricacies of the position, but his combination of speed, athleticism and physicality has some believing the Irish have an elite talent at corner. A lingering shoulder injury is something to keep an eye on this fall.

(Highest ranking: 13th. Lowest ranking: 22nd)