In a little more than a year, Troy Niklas has played or at least thought he was going to play three positions at Notre Dame.
The 6-foot-7, 260-pounder from Fullerton, Calif., figured he’d come in as a defensive end. Then he was told Dog linebacker. Now he’s switched to tight end.
“I really had no idea,” said Niklas of the position he expected to play when he signed with the Irish in February of 2011, turning his back on Stanford in the 11th hour.
“I actually trained that spring a lot at tight end before I came here. Then they called me up and said I was going to be playing defense (at end). Then they were like, ‘Now you’re going to play Dog.’
“So there’s been a lot of switching positions. But I definitely feel this is the position I want to stay at.”
Like molding your body to a comfortable chair, Niklas believes he’s “home” at tight end, despite the fact that he played predominately offensive guard and defensive tackle as a senior at Servite High School in Anaheim. He made 16 catches for 128 yards and three touchdowns as a junior where his length, athleticism and reputation as a workout warrior/physical freak first took hold.
“It’s definitely my most comfortable position,” said Niklas, who Brian Kelly recently said was strong enough “to lift a car.”
“I think all my attributes really fit that position well.”
It’s good that Niklas has found a comfort zone because it appears the Irish have zeroed in on their heir apparent to Tyler Eifert who, in his senior season, has established himself as one of the premier tight ends in the country, and likely won’t exercise the option to play for a fifth season at Notre Dame.
The future at tight end for the Irish includes Niklas, sophomore classmate Ben Koyack, and junior Alex Welch, who will preserve a year of eligibility in 2012 following his pre-season knee injury.
“I think he’s handled it great,” said Eifert of Niklas’ transition to tight end. “He improves every week. He’s always learning something new and eliminating mistakes.
“I don’t know if he’s ever played tight end before, but he’s getting the plays and he knows them pretty well. That helps.”
Niklas believes the transition has gone smoothly considering last year in Week Three against Michigan State, he was the starting Dog linebacker in place of Prince Shembo.
“It’s definitely a little different,” said Niklas of the defense-to-offense transition. “It’s a complete flipping of the mind. I think I’ve adapted to reading defenses, knowing what coverages they’re in, and whether the defensive end is playing contain or he’s going to be rushing the B gap. Just things like that that’s really helped me with my game.”
Niklas definitely looks to Eifert for the blueprint to playing the position.
“Tyler is a really good route runner,” Niklas said. “I just watch him run his routes and try to run them like him. He’s also very knowledgeable about the offense. I’m always learning from him.”
Niklas said there’s a definite adjustment of the mindset when it comes to switching sides of the football.
“It’s a lot more controlled on offense,” said Niklas, who finished with 20 tackles in 12 games last season. “You’ve really got to be under control when you hit people.
“It happens a lot in practice. I’ll try to tee off on someone and sometimes I’ll get him really good. Other times I’ll completely miss him. You’ve got to break down.”
Niklas became a favored target of his offensive mates - verbal target, that is -- after his 29-yard reception against Navy fell short. Quincy Adams, a 5-foot-11, 195-pound freshman defensive back for the Mids, made the open-field tackle on Niklas, just when it appeared that he was about to score his first collegiate touchdown.
“Those ankle biters,” Niklas laughed. “I’m still pissed about it.”
It’s not like it’s easy to forget.
“Yeah, he heard plenty about that from some of the guys,” Eifert said.
More of the talk as it pertains to Niklas centers on his future at the position, which looks very bright. He was targeted twice during Notre Dame’s game-winning drive against Purdue. The first was ruled defensive holding and netted the Irish 10 yards. The second was a twisting catch attempt that fell to the turf.
It was exhilarating for Niklas to be a part of the game-winning drive.
“It was really cool and a really good learning experience, too,” said Niklas, who enters tonight’s Michigan State game with two catches for 59 yards.
“Everything is on another level. You’ve got to get the play and get set a lot faster. I’m just happy that Tommy (Rees) could lead us down to win the game like that.”
Niklas is determined to take advantage of the next opportunity that comes his way.
“It’s like that play in the Navy game,” Niklas smiled. “You never like to see the ball slip through your hands…or a touchdown slip through your feet, so to speak.”
Next step: playing in front of 75,000 in Spartan Stadium Saturday night.
“They’re very physical, they’re very aggressive, they’re very big and they’re fast,” said Niklas of Michigan State. “It’s going to be a great game. I’m looking forward to it.”
So, too, are Irish faithful as they size up the next elite pass-catching tight end at Notre Dame.