Over the past decade, Notre Dame has started three straight second-round draft picks at tight end in Anthony Fasano (2003-05), John Carlson (2006-07) and Kyle Rudolph (2008-10). It currently has a fourth on a similar path, if not higher, in 2011 Walter Camp first-team All-American Tyler Eifert.
Sophomore Troy Niklas' physical presence has been felt at tight end.
This streak of excellence is not about to run dry in forthcoming years. There aren’t many programs that can lose a junior the quality of Alex Welch, a former four-star recruit, for the year because of a torn ACL (Aug. 8 practice), yet still count its blessings at the position. That’s not only because of Eifert’s presence, but the growth of sophomores Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas.
Koyack, 6-5, and 253 pounds, was deemed in many circles the nation’s premier tight end recruit in 2011. That same year, the now 6-7, 260-pound Niklas was the consummate “Big Skill” recruit, with Stanford coveting him as a tight end, USC at left offensive tackle and others at defensive end — yet he was nimble enough to excel on special teams and outside linebacker as an Irish freshman.
“We’re lucky,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “To lose a really good player like Alex and to have three tight ends — and [senior] Jake Golic’s getting a lot more work too. We feel good that we have depth at that position that will get the job done. That’s not going to stop us from winning.”
A prolific pass catcher at Oil City (Pa.) Senior (152 career receptions for 2,591 yards and 28 touchdowns), Koyack has a background similar to Eifert, although he is more physically developed at the same stage of their careers. He earned a monogram as a freshman while mainly working as a motion tight end, but his meal ticket for now is to aid the in-line blocking, especially because Eifert is likely to split out often as a receiver.
“We feel pretty good about him,” said Kelly of Koyack. “He needs to continue to get better at the point of attack. He’s committed to doing that. He’s been really good in space for us.“
According to Koyack, his primary concentration this August has been to hone his physicality and blocking technique without overanalyzing, thereby inhibiting his aggression.
“There’s definitely a mental thing,” said Koyack, a highly talented musician who can play piano, trombone and euphonium. “When it’s a kick-out block you’ve got to run into somebody; it’s like running into a brick wall pretty much — especially with some of the guys we’ve got.
“You’ve got to do that, but then you also have to have your head in the right spot and your hands in the right spot. Sometimes you get one and don’t get the other. … you have to be consistent.”
Aggression is not an issue with Niklas, whose physique instantly earned him the nickname Hercules last year. In the opening practice this August, he twice capsized the blocking sled, which some might consider a herculean feat in itself.
“I was ready to get on the field and kind of let loose,” Niklas smiled. “I didn’t intend to flip it the first time, but then I found out I could and might as well do it again.”
With Niklas, it was a matter of honing his bull-in-a-china-shop technique, which Kelly said has improved appreciably.
“It was all technique with him because physically, he can lift a car up,” Kelly said. “It was technique and understanding leverage and all the things that go along with the tight end position …”
In addition to flipping blocking sleds, Niklas also has experienced a flipping of the mind by moving to tight end.
“Offense is a lot more controlled aggression, whereas on defense you can just kind of run all over the place and be kind of a wild, crazy man,” he said. “I like to think of myself as a physical person, and I choose to do that on a daily basis. I think that’s something you have to choose to be. I embrace the position I’m in right now, blocking a lot — and also catching some balls.”
No one can better vouch for Niklas’ physical style than classmate Ben Councell, who has been working at the starting Dog linebacker spot while junior Danny Spond recovers from migraine issues that plagued him last week. Councell isn’t sure whether it was better to compete with Niklas for action at Dog last year, or compete against him as the blocking tight end.
“He’s going to be a beast tight end, especially in the run game,” Councell said. “He’s probably the biggest tight end you’ll see out there. We’ve been going pretty good at it, and then he’ll always drive me back a little bit. I want to put on a little more weight so I can play the run a little better.
“It’s a hard time to get around him because he gets his eyes on you and he’s locked on. Even after I’m chasing the ball down, halfway down the field, all of a sudden Troy comes up again.”
Sidelined in the last week of spring drills as a precautionary measure while dealing with some physical issues, Niklas participated in all the summer workouts but also engaged in some biofeedback testing.
“In research, it helps with my sleep,” he said. “It helped a lot. I would say what I was doing was very cool. I was literally playing a new game with my brain.”
With his aggressive play, Niklas just might get into the heads of many foes.