Junior tight end Troy Niklas has seen a difference in the way he’s coached this year compared to last, when he shifted in the spring of 2012 from outside linebacker to tight end.
Niklas' 28-yard catch against Navy on third-and-nine set up the game-winning touchdown.
All the “little things” that tight ends coach Scott Booker used to harp on with the fundamentals of the position remain important, but the bar also has also been raised quite a bit.
“The ‘little thing’ now would be, ‘Why isn’t this guy on the ground, Troy?’ instead of ‘Why aren’t your hands inside?’ ” smiled Niklas after Wednesday’s practice.
At a powerful 6-6 1/2, 270 pounds, the man nicknamed Hercules wouldn’t look out of place anywhere along the line of scrimmage, be it on offense or defense. But his move to tight end in 2012 is reaping huge dividends when earlier this week he was named one of eight semifinalists for the John Mackey Award, presented annually to the nation’s top tight end, which last year was Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert.
Niklas is now the fifth straight starting tight end at Notre Dame since 2005 to be named at least a semifinalist for the award, joining second-round picks Anthony Fasano, John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph, plus last year’s first-round selection, Eifert.
Had the Mackey been created about 40 years ago, other Irish recipients might have included College and Pro Football Hall of Fame member Dave Casper (1973), three-time All-American Ken MacAfee (1974-77), also in the College Football Hall of Fame, first-round pick Tony Hunter (1982), and future All-Pro Mark Bavaro, also a first-team AP All-American (1983-84).
Others likely on the list might have been first-round choices Derek Brown (1988-91) and Irv Smith (1989-92), plus Pete Chryplewicz (1993-96).
This was supposed to be the one year where a Notre Dame tight end’s name wouldn’t be a given to rank among the elite again. Nevertheless, “Tight End U.” has an extraordinary knack at finding and developing an individual at the position, whether it’s less-heralded three-star recruit Eifert or someone originally assigned to defense like Niklas, who started at drop linebacker during a 31-13 victory versus Michigan State in 2011.
“It’s kind of an indicator you’re doing pretty well, so I’m pretty happy about that,” said Niklas of being named a semifinalist in just his second season at the position. “I’m not quite there, but I’m getting better every week. … Just kind of an affirmation that I should just keep on the track I’m going.”
Niklas was switched last year to tight end because the Irish needed a physical presence for in-line blocking to complement Eifert so the latter could be split out more and create mismatches in coverage. It’s sometimes forgotten that Niklas actually was an eight-game starter at tight end in 2012, while Eifert was used in various capacities detached from the line, or also attached. Niklas caught only five passes for 75 yards, including a touchdown during a victory at Boston College, but his job description was to be a formidable blocker. For the most part, he fulfilled his duties well while Notre Dame finished with more than 200 yards rushing in a regular season for the first time in 12 years.
With Eifert now in the NFL, Niklas has elevated his blocking, including in space, while also nabbing 25 passes for 390 yards — an impressive 15.6 yards per catch — and five touchdowns, which is one short of the school single-season school record set by 1977 Walter Camp Award winner MacAfee. He admits he was eager to display his receiving wares because he had been stereotyped mainly as a “blocking tight end.”
“Yeah, I think I was looked at that way a little bit, especially because I blocked so much last year,” said Niklas, whose clutch 28-yard catch in traffic against Navy set up the game-winning score on Nov. 2. “That’s kind of one thing I wanted to do was just really let everyone know that, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good at catching the ball too.’ ” ...It’s been a lot more fun too going into games being part of the passing attack.”
However, Niklas said he didn’t necessarily set a goal to be a Mackey semifinalist this season because that’s not how he was going to define his value to the team.
“I really don’t think you can get somewhere by kind of looking [at that],” said Niklas, who said his next step is to become a more dynamic all-around receiver who runs route with consistent perfection. “You get somewhere by focusing on the here and the now and what you can control right now. I can’t control whether I win the Mackey Award in three or four weeks, but I can control how I better practice or what my attitude is and how I attack the day.”
Meanwhile, classmate Ben Koyack, one of the top three tight end recruits in the country in 2011, has progressed significantly this season too while working with Niklas, snaring a touchdown pass in three of the last five games while averaging 17.6 yards on his nine receptions. The two already have combined for more touchdowns (eight) in one season at the position at Notre Dame than anyone else since “tight end” first came into the nomenclature in the late 1960s.
With his blocking skills vastly improved, Koyack should team with Niklas to provide Notre Dame with the premier tight end duo in 2014, if they're not already getting there this season.
“You can see in his eyes he’s a lot happier, and I’m happy for him because he’s been working really hard and he’s been doing really well in practice, and now he’s been doing it in the game,” said Niklas of Koyack.
Both will face supreme challenges in the final two weeks while going up against the exceptional linebacker corps of BYU and Stanford. BYU features one of the top defensive playmakers in the country in outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who can “make you look dumb,” according to Niklas.
Earning the trust of quarterback Tommy Rees and the coaching staff to do his job is as gratifying to Niklas as being recognized for the Mackey Award.
“Every day you’ve got to be on top of it, and even if you have the trust you have to be on top of it. … It gives you a confidence knowing that the coaches are confident in you also,” Niklas said.
“I knew it would be a process and it would take time for me to develop my skills. That’s just kind of what happens. Tyler worked his way up and so have I and so has Ben, and the same thing with [freshman] Durham [Smyth]. That’s all going to happen. …He’ll just keep learning, just like all of has have.”
Given the history, one wouldn’t want to bet against it.