Troy Niklas' decision to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft certainly was a surprise, but Notre Dame appears to have enough depth and talent at tight end to avoid a significant dropoff without the Mackey Award semifinalist.
Ben Koyack will return this fall with much-improved pass catching and blocking credentials after making significant strides in his junior season. While he only caught 10 passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns, his mid-season emergence allowed Notre Dame to run a high volume of plays out of a two tight end set.
Behind Koyack is a group of inexperienced and talented players. Durham Smythe, who redshirted in 2013, impressed coaches and teammates with his showing during December bowl practices.
"Durham Smythe is going to be a really good player," coach Brian Kelly said last month. "Really good player. Outstanding ball skills, he's going to continue to get bigger and stronger. I don't want to over-hype him, but he has some really unique ball skills for that position he plays."
Mike Heuermann -- whose brother, Jeff (also a tight end), caught four touchdowns for Ohio State last fall -- could be turned to as an option as well.
The Irish are set to bring in a pair of blue-chip tight end recruits, too, and a third may be on the way as well. Nic Weishar (Midlothian, Ill.) and Tyler Luatua (La Mirada, Calif.) are both rated by Rivals as four-star prospects, and Weishar played in the Under Armour Army All-American Bowl earlier this month.
Notre Dame is also in the mix on four-star tight end Dalton Shultz (South Jordan, Utah), who Rivals ranks as the No. 2 tight end prospect in the class of 2014. With just under a month until signing day, there's always a chance circumstances could change, but it appears likely Notre Dame will bring in a talented crop of freshmen tight ends.
The Irish may be perfectly fine going with one tight end (Koyack) most of the year if Smythe, Heuermann or any of the freshmen aren't ready to take on in-line and detached blocking assignments. But the success Notre Dame has had developing tight ends in recent years could very well produce another solid player at that position -- the talent is there, after all.
Make no mistake, Niklas' departure is a blow -- he was an elite red zone weapon and a solid blocker -- but unlike at other positions, Notre Dame may be able to absorb this loss.