Junior tight end Troy Niklas have every intention of returning to Notre Dame next fall for his final season of eligibility, but he has started to plan for what might lie ahead in his future.
Junior Troy Niklas made 28 catches and scored five touchdowns during his junior season.
Niklas is one of three Irish juniors — along with defensive end Stephon Tuitt and running back George Atkinson III — to submit paperwork to the National Football League for a draft evaluation. He said he signed off on the request after head coach Brian Kelly recommended it.
“I’m pretty sure I’m coming back,” Niklas said.
Exactly what he’ll hear from the NFL remains a mystery, but he doesn’t expect it will do anything to change his mind about a senior year in South Bend. Kelly said he submits the requests to use a teaching tool as much as to give players a glimpse of where they stand in the eyes of pro football scouts. Of the three players on this year’s list, only Tuitt is a realistic candidate to leave school early.
Niklas (6-foot-7, 270 pounds) has the physical attributes of an NFL tight end and grew into a more complete weapon on the field this fall. He finished the season third on the team with 28 catches for 422 yards and five touchdowns.
The biggest improvement Niklas made in his second season at the position was away from the football. He was at times woefully exposed as a pass blocker during his sophomore season after converting from linebacker. This season, he made a major leap in that category while helping the Irish offensive line surrender fewer sacks than all but one team in the bowl subdivision.
“He does so much for us,” Kelly said. “We gave up eight sacks this year and he’s a big reason why. If you’re looking at all the jobs that he does, if he’s not necessarily effective with us during the game catching the ball, he’s extremely effective for us in other areas.”
The coach went on to say because of the progression of the plays they ran later in the season, Niklas didn’t get as many touches as he should have. He caught three balls for a total of 32 yards during the final two games of the regular season.
Niklas said he knew very little about the evaluation and draft process, which was also part of the reason why he’s going for a test drive this winter.
“Definitely some key takeaways [are] what they think I need to improve in my game. Definitely some good things to work on in the offseason,” he said. “And then just having a little bit of information of the next level so I’m not going into next year kind of clueless. …I know less than you probably. That’s why we’re doing this.”
Niklas said he was equally in the dark about which opponents await the Irish in the 2014 season. Notre Dame released its schedules for the next three years Friday morning. While the big tight end doesn’t know specifics, he was happy to learn about the many quality teams the Irish will face.
“I think it’s better when it’s a tough schedule,” he said. “When you play a bad team you just have no motivation that week to really practice hard or really try. You still want to do well in the game, but it’s just not as fun when you know it’s not going to be good competition. … It’s just a lot more fun to be getting up every week for a game, rather than this is a cupcake game we’ve just gotta get through it.”