Notre Dame football: Irish learning Niklas can do it all

South Bend Tribune

ANN ARBOR, Mich. Somewhere between finesse and brute strength is the attitude and approach it takes to play tight end at Notre Dame. College football's modern-day version of Tight End U, right? The legacy of Tyler Eifert, Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Anthony Fasano, et. al., has left some imposing footprints on the program. Until now, Troy Niklas hadn't had to be that guy. One game into this new era, the jury's still out as to whether he can be that guy. In last week's win over Temple, the 6-foot-7, 270-pound junior took a step in the right direction. That progress will have to continue Saturday at Michigan in order for the Irish offense to function at maximum efficiency. Two plays from the Temple game will be spliced into Niklas' highlight reel. The most obvious was a 66-yard reception and run for a touchdown just before intermission. The other was a massive blocking effort he and receiver Daniel Smith applied to spring TJ Jones loose for a 51-yard advance on a short pass. The touchdown, the second of Niklas' career, was nice. The block was encouraging. "Troy's a big, physical guy," said Irish quarterback Tommy Rees. "As you saw Saturday, he can do something with the ball after he catches it. I wouldn't really sleep on his speed too much. Once the big guy gets rolling, he can kind of move 'em. "I'm really excited about Troy's progress. He'll continue to get better." "It was a great experience," Niklas said of the long TD. "The o-line blocked well. Tommy threw the ball. All I had to do was get open. I caught the ball and ran as fast as I could to the end zone. "In a Tampa-2, a two-high defense, the middle of the field is exposed. All you have to do is beat the (middle) linebacker and you're home free. That's what happened. "There's a point where I was kinda hoping I wasn't going to get caught (from behind). As I was running, I looked back and saw I was in the clear. I just turned on the burners." Downfield blocking doesn't elicit the same sort of glory or attention, but it's just as important as a big catch. "You need downfield blocking to spring a big play," Rees said. "With TJ's ability after the catch, downfield blocking is huge. "Troy has improved (with his blocking). Obviously, he has the big frame to be a blocker. He's done a great job." "What I like about (the blocking) was he wasn't in-line, so he wasn't attached," said Irish coach Brian Kelly. "He was in space. His progression for us was that his awareness in space blocking is a lot different than when you're in-line. "I want to be careful how I say this, but you can maul a little bit when you're in-line. You can get hands on (the opponent), and as long as you're not outside the framework of the body, you might be able to kind of tug in there a little bit. "In space, you have to be very careful. You have to have great hand placement. He did a very good job of utilizing his feet, his hands, his body. That's a big step for a big kid like that to be effective in space." The secret to locking up a target while in the open field? "Running to contact; getting your hands inside; driving your feet," Niklas said. "It's not too hard (to avoid a holding penalty). You just have to do what your coaches teach you. If you get your hands inside and keep your feet moving, be aggressive, most times you won't get a holding penalty." While the previous great tight ends at Notre Dame came in with fanfare and grew into the elite level, Niklas came in as a defensive end who was summoned by necessity to the offensive side of the ball after his freshman season. He collected 20 tackles before making the transition. Last year, as an understudy to Eifert mainly concerned with blocking, Niklas caught five passes for 75 yards and a touchdown. "I'm still learning every day," Niklas said. "I've made a lot of strides since camp and spring ball. Looking at last year, it's like night and day. It's hard to quantify exactly where I'm at, but I feel I've elevated my game quite a bit since last year. Every week you'll see a little better play." His shirt-stretching muscles and 6-7 frame give him an edge against most defenders. Learning how to use those physical attributes will make him a lethal weapon close to the goal line. "I still have a long ways to go," Niklas said. "Every day I work on using my body and using my hands. I've got a lot more confidence in my body; in my techniques, and my steps. In the passing game, I've got a lot more confidence running routes because I've done them so many times — especially in the red zone, when I have to post-up someone. I've been able to box them out, or do some other basketball-type moves to get open. "(Last year), we were working on that developmentally in practice, but I wasn't really good enough at the routes and the techniques — I wasn't better than (Eifert) — to get on the field." It will all be on the line Saturday at Michigan. This will be Niklas' first big-time test. "(Michigan) is a fast, physical defense," Niklas said. "The (defensive linemen) use their hands really well. Their cover guys are pretty impressive. I'll have to do everything to the best of my ability. "I'll have to come in aggressive and fundamentally sound. It's going to be a battle. It's one of those things you look forward to. "I'm always ready (for a physical game), any day. We'll work hard. We're here for the team. "Whatever coach asks me to do, that's what I'll be doing. I'm definitely able to head-butt some people and bash some heads in." Everyone already knows he's that guy.

Has tight end Troy Niklas become that guy for the Irish? SBT photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN