Former Notre Dame TE Niklas adept at adapting

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

Three years ago, Troy Niklas was a freshman outside linebacker making the transition from high school to college. Two years ago, he faced a position switch after making the move to tight end the previous spring.

Last year, with star Tyler Eifert in the NFL, Niklas was suddenly “the guy” at tight end. And this year, Niklas is now a former college star, the transition this time being to the NFL, where he’s a rookie with the Arizona Cardinals.

Change, for Niklas, has been a constant, and it all began with the mutual decision made by him and the Notre Dame staff to make the move to tight end.

“I think it’s really changed for the better. I think playing outside linebacker really wasn’t my ideal fit, and ever since I’ve been playing tight end I feel like my skill set and my strengths fulfill tight end much better than outside linebacker,” Niklas said this week following a Cardinals practice. “I think it’s changed my life a lot and I’m really happy about it.”

The Cardinals no doubt are happy to have him. The team picked him in the second round of the May NFL Draft, and he is listed as a starter on the depth chart posted on the team’s website. He played, but did not catch a pass, in last Saturday’s preseason opener.

“It was pretty awesome. It was a little surreal being out there finally, and kind of fulfilling a childhood dream; but at the same time it was definitely that next level up,” the 6-foot-6, 270-pounder said. “Everybody was playing a little bit harder, ran a little bit faster, was a lit-tle bit stronger. It was fun to compete at that higher level.”

Niklas continues to overcome an offseason freak injury. During a workout this summer, his finger got caught in a defender’s jersey, and, when the jersey twisted, Niklas suffered a spiral fracture in his finger.

“It was kind of one of those freak things. I’d actually never broken a bone in my body, so I was very injury free,” Niklas said.

“I was pretty shocked at first, like ‘Did that really just happen?’ It’s pretty frustrating to deal with. Injuries are the worst, and not being able to perform is even worse, I guess. It really kind of set me behind learning the offense because I couldn’t be out there running routes, running the plays with the team; so I’m kind of feeling that now in camp trying to catch up.”

Helping expedite the process has been another former Irish tight end, John Carlson, who signed with the Cardinals this offseason. Carlson is one of three Domers listed as starters in the Cardinals offense — wide receiver Michael Floyd being the other. Former Irish running back Robert Hughes is also in Arizona’s camp.

It was Carlson, a seventh-year pro, who recently provided the money quote on the solidly built but youthful-looking Niklas, offering that the rookie “looks like a 12-year-old boy that swallowed a grizzly bear,” a quote that Niklas just laughed at.

“On the field he’s a great guy to have around,” Niklas said. “If I have a quick question pop up like right before I go in and then off the field; there’s a lot of things that you need to do as a professional to make sure that your body is in prime condition, and he’s helped with that.”

Carlson and Niklas did not play together at Notre Dame, and the two took different paths to the NFL. Carlson spent five years in South Bend while Niklas left after three. The move came as a bit of a surprise to those around the program, including head coach Brian Kelly.

“He was definitely a little unhappy about it, but at the same time he understands that I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do for my career and fulfilling my dreams,” said Niklas, a Fullerton, Calif., product. “He was a little unhappy, disappointed, but at the same time he wished me well.”

The move, though, is one with which Niklas remains happy.

“It’s worked out pretty well so far,” he said. “I’m looking to really make the most out of this year.”

Bob Wieneke: 574-235-6428

Twitter: @BWienekeNDI

Arizona Cardinals' Troy Niklas (87) tries to shed a block from Houston Texans' Justin Tuggle (57) as he goes out for a pass during the first half of an NFL preseason football game Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, in Glendale, Ariz. The Cardinals defeated the Texans 32-0. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)