The endorsement of Troy Niklas to tight end extends well beyond Brian Kelly.
A jack-of-all-positions prospect out of Servite High School in Los Angeles a year ago, Niklas held nearly as many offers as he did next-level projections. Notre Dame saw a defensive end before moving Niklas to outside linebacker. USC saw a future offensive tackle. Stanford liked Niklas at tight end.
Considering what Jim Harbaugh did with the position during his time in Palo Alto and now the San Francisco 49ers, that’s at least a small boost of confidence for Niklas as he learns his second position in as many semesters.
“Oh yeah,” Niklas laughed, thinking back to his Stanford recruitment. “For sure.”
Not that Niklas should need much of a boost. For an athlete nicknamed Hercules by teammates and standing 6-foot-7, 252 pounds, confidence shouldn’t be a problem. During Wednesday’s opening spring practice, Niklas would have been confused with All-American Tyler Eifert if he wasn’t bigger than the Irish starter.
Niklas worked behind Eifert and sophomore Ben Koyack on the depth chart, a position Kelly seems comfortable keeping the transplant for now. If Eifert is the Irish match-up problem, splitting wide and isolating on defensive backs, Niklas is supposed to grind down linebackers and defensive ends.
“The first thing that we want him to do is be an in-line blocker for us,” Kelly said. “We want to be able to run the ball effectively. Troy has to be able to be a very good piece of that blocking for us.
“We didn’t put him in there just because he’s 6-7 and we can get a matchup. That’s part of it.”
Notre Dame’s defense would probably prefer Niklas stay in the box. After dealing with Eifert last season and Kyle Rudolph before that, the Irish can appreciate the problems caused by big skill with speed, never mind the Stanford game last year. Niklas even played golf with Rudolph last off-season and hopes to catch up with the second round pick.
Comparisons between the two took all of one practice to get started.
“I see him being a first rounder if he gets everything together,” said Jamoris Slaughter. “He reminds me of Kyle Rudolph, but he might be a little bit quicker. He’s kind of fast to be that big.”
The coaching staff approached Niklas about the move soon after the team returned from winter break. A few weeks later the move was official even if Bob Diaco may have separation anxiety about losing a prospect who started a game at dog linebacker last season and appeared to have a track on the position this spring.
Instead, Niklas is now Notre Dame’s reserve tight end with the offense likely moving in a direction toward utilizing the position more.
“Obviously he would have liked to keep me to be a dominant edge setter,” Niklas said. “He jokes around about how his DB’s are going to kill me when they throw over the top. I tell him I’ll just catch it and run around them.
“Obviously I could have got by at linebacker and done a good job, but for me I just feel like that I can reach a higher level playing tight end than I would have at outside linebacker.”