Notre Dame football: TE Niklas turning pro

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

In the days leading up to Notre Dame’s Dec. 28 New Era Pinstripe Bowl victory, Irish head football coach Brian Kelly gushed about a little-publicized freshman tight end who was making waves in practice.

Kelly sure needs Durham Smythe — and a whole bunch of other young tight ends — to continue to grow up in a hurry.

On Thursday night, a day after senior Alex Welch made his transfer to Miami of Ohio official, junior tight end Troy Niklas made a leap into the 2014 NFL Draft that neither his parents or Kelly initially saw coming.

Niklas’ father, Don, confirmed his son’s intentions to the South Bend Tribune late Thursday night. Sports Illustrated was the first to report Niklas had joined the record pool of underclassmen that had blipped past the 80-mark on Thursday.

"I have made the very difficult decision to pursue my childhood dream and will enter the 2014 NFL Draft,” Troy Niklas said in a statement he emailed to some members of the media. “I have thoroughly enjoyed my Notre Dame experience and want to thank the university, coach Kelly, my teammates, the football staff, administration, and my teachers, as well as all of my friends and the entire Notre Dame community for providing this Southern California native with the experience of a lifetime.

“While I will miss being part of the team next year, I will always be part of the Notre Dame family and look forward to returning to earn my degree from the greatest university in the country. Go Irish."

Niklas becomes the fourth player from the 2013 Irish team that finished 9-4 to give up his final year of eligibility to enter the May draft. Three of those players — Niklas, running back George Atkinson III and Stephon Tuitt, are true juniors. Senior nose guard Louis Nix had a fifth-year option.

The Irish have only had only seven players go three-and-out in the past decade, but three of them have done so in the past five days. The others were running back Darius Walker (2007 draft), quarterback Jimmy Clausen (2010 draft), wide receiver Golden Tate (2010 draft) and tight end Kyle Rudolph (2011 draft).

It comes on a day when junior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels announced he was academically ineligible for the spring semester, defensive line recruit Matt Dickerson flipped his commitment to UCLA because of family concerns and ESPN reported ND’s long-term relationship with adidas is coming to an end to be replaced by Under Armour.

Niklas may be the most shocking, at least to Kelly, who was confident after the Pinstripe Bowl that the 6-foot-7, tight end’s exploration of the draft process would lead him back to ND.

Niklas received a grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board that projected him in a range from the second to the fourth round.

“I think that grade is relatively accurate,” analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com said. “I think that’s where he’d come off the board. He’d be in the conversation to be the fourth tight end to be picked in this draft, and that’s why I think it would be a mistake for him to come out.

“If he went back for another year, he could be THE guy going into next year instead of best-case scenario being the fourth guy this season behind the three consensus top tight ends in this draft — Eric Ebron from North Carolina, Jace Amaro from Texas Tech and then Austin Seferian-Jenkins from Washington.

“He’s intriguing, there’s no question. And Notre Dame has essentially become Tight End University. They’re the gold standard in recent years for producing pro tight ends.”

The Irish have produced four tight ends who were either first- or second-round picks in the past eight drafts, including first-rounder Tyler Eifert to the Cincinnati Bengals last season.

Niklas, who came to ND as an outside linebacker and played there as a freshman, finished the 2013 season as ND’s third-leading receiver. The Fullerton, Calif., product had 32 receptions for 498 yards and five TDs .

The only remaining tight end on the Irish roster with any college experience is junior Ben Koyack, who had 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns.

Freshmen Smythe and Mike Heuerman both sat out the 2013 season as redshirts. The Irish have two tight ends on their 2014 recruiting class — Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar — and could add another in the nation’s No. 2-rated tight end Dalton Schultz of South Jordan, Utah.

EHansen@SBTinfo.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas heads toward the end zone for a touchdown in August against Temple. (AP File Photo/JOE RAYMOND)