Notre Dame turns to 'Hercules' at tight end

Notre Dame turns to 'Hercules' at tight end
August 16, 2013, 11:00 am
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Troy Niklas made one thing clear: He’s not here to replace Tyler Eifert. 

On paper, Niklas is Eifert’s replacement. He’s Notre Dame’s No. 1 tight end, a role filled by Eifert for the last two years. 

In 2012, Eifert won the Mackey Award, given annually to the nation’s best collegiate tight end. Before Eifert, Kyle Rudolph was in that spot, and the current Minnesota Viking was named to the NFC’s All-Pro team last year.

But in Niklas’ eyes, it’ll be a group effort to replace the production Eifert put up in 2011 and 2012. 

“As a whole, our offense will end up filling his shoes,” Niklas said. “Me personally, I don’t think I’m going to be doing the exact same things he does.”

Niklas played some tight end in high school, but came to Notre Dame as an offensive lineman. He switched to linebacker his freshman season, then to tight end last fall. The 6-foot-6, 270-pound Niklas -- nicknamed "Hercules" -- has the kind of size and athleticism coaches salivate over for a tight end, but doesn't have much experience at the position.

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In 2012, Niklas caught five passes -- one for a touchdown -- and played in all 13 games. Coach Brian Kelly rated him as merely “okay” at pass-catching and in-line blocking last fall.

“His size and physical frame were up here and his accomplishments were here,” Kelly explained, raising one hand above his head and putting another around his chest. “I want to see his accomplishments meet his size and stature. And I think they're getting there.”

Niklas’ self-assessment of his play last year was along those “okay” lines, too. 

He’s always felt confident about his pass-catching ability, but wasn’t a good route-runner. He struggled to get a strong base when blocking, and wasn’t able to use his size as well as he could have. 

Those are both areas in which he feels more comfortable this fall, though. Niklas said he understands to cut a route off at 12 yards instead of 10, and feels his base is stronger and blocking technique is better. 

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Kelly’s seen Niklas use his size more effectively in practice, too.

“Just the other day in the red zone, he used his body and his size, and he complemented it with his pass-catching,” Kelly observed. “(He used) his body to box out, and he didn't have that feel last year. He was a big-bodied guy running around there. He's getting there. He's learning, he's understanding those things, and the same thing in the run game.”

Niklas experienced a run to the BCS Championship last fall, and picked up plenty from watching Eifert. It’s a new group of players in 2013, though, and plenty are in Niklas shoes, feeling a sense of urgency to step up and help get the Irish back into the national title picture.

“What’s cool about last year is that we kind of showed ourselves we could do it, and everyone’s kind of excited to get out there and do it again,” Niklas said.