Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas will enter the NFL Draft, his father confirmed to CSNChicago.com Thursday night. Niklas is the third -- and most surprising -- player to leave Notre Dame early for the pros, joining defensive end Stephon Tuitt and running back George Atkinson.
Sports Illustrated first reported Niklas' departure.
Niklas, a junior, caught 32 passes for 498 yards with five touchdowns and was named a Mackey Award semifinalist.
The news comes as a shock, given he said prior to the Pinstripe Bowl he was likely returning to Notre Dame.
"I think it's a really good learning experience, see what they have to say, what they think I can improve on for next year," Niklas said at the time.
But Niklas refused to answer a question about his draft decision following the Dec. 28 Pinstripe Bowl, and seemed to leave the door open for an early exit to the NFL. Still, it seemed likely he would return, given his relative inexperience at tight end.
Niklas came to Notre Dame as an offensive lineman, but switched to linebacker for his freshman year. In 2012, Notre Dame moved Niklas to tight end, where he backed up future first-round pick Tyler Eifert and caught five passes for 75 yards with a touchdown.
Despite only having two years as a tight end under his belt, Niklas is an extremely projectable NFL prospect. At 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, Niklas has elite size and athleticism for the position, and developed into a solid in-line and detached blocker last fall.
The consensus from the NFL Draft advisory board was Niklas could go as high as the second round, his father said. Whereas Tuitt was projected as a first-round pick and Atkinson was on the outs with Irish coaches, Niklas was expected to be a key contributor in Notre Dame's 2014 offense -- perhaps even more key with DaVaris Daniels missing spring practice due to an academic issue.
A year ago, coach Brian Kelly touted Notre Dame's ability to retain draft-eligible juniors such as Michael Floyd, Manti Te'o, Eifert, Zack Martin and Louis Nix. That success has done a complete 180 over the last week, and Notre Dame now must search for answers at yet another position.