NOTRE DAME — Troy Niklas walked into the interview room with new facial hair and bad puns in tow.
“Before you guys start asking questions, I ‘mustache’ you a question,” he said, looking around expectantly. When he didn’t get a response, he added: “I guess I’ll just ‘shave’ it for later.”
Here’s hoping he makes a better tight end than comedian.
After coming to Notre Dame in 2011 as a decorated defensive lineman out of Fullerton, Calif., the hulking 6-foot-7, 260-pound Niklas spent his first season with the Irish at outside linebacker. In March, head coach Brian Kelly sent minor shockwaves through the Irish fanbase when he announced Niklas was being moved to tight end. The call was somewhat confusing.
After all, Niklas out-shined classmate Ishaq Williams at outside linebacker in 2011, and the tight end unit was (and still is) helmed by All-American Tyler Eifert and supported by Alex Welch, Ben Koyak and Jake Golic.
Kelly said the outside linebacker spot could afford the hit, whereas the tight end spot needed the extra man. Now that Welch, who was set to be the No. 2 tight end behind Eifert, is out for the season with a torn ACL suffered at pre-season practice, Niklas’s move may prove to be crucial. Eifert will start and will likely lead the team in receptions. But Kelly has stressed a larger role for tight ends this season, so expect to see Koyak and Niklas thrown in the mix fairly often.
Though Niklas played some tight end in high school before being bounced around between the offensive and defensive line, he said getting used to his new role has called for a whole new mentality.
“It’s a complete flipping of the mind,” he said. “Offense is a lot more controlled aggression, whereas on defense you can kinda run all over the place and be kind of a wild, crazy man.”
Niklas welcomed the first day of pre-season camp by flipping over the one-man blocking sled not once, but twice during drills.
“I was just ready to get out on the field again and let loose,” he said. “I didn’t intend to flip it the first time, but then I thought, ‘Well, might as well do it again.’”
Strength has never been an issue for a guy teammates nicknamed “Hercules.” It was the finer points of playing a skilled position — the finesse, the technique — that Niklas had to get down.
Through the first week of pre-season practice, Kelly sees a big jump in Niklas’s game.
“It was all technique with him,” Kelly said of Niklas. “Physically, he can lift a car up. It’s not an issue. He’s strong physically, it was technique and leverage and all the things that go along with being at the tight end position. He’s made great strides.
“It was a good week for our tight ends. Losing Alex was difficult, there’s a lot of anxiety when you lose a really good player that’s shown himself well, but to see those other tight ends really have a couple good days puts your eyes and focus somewhere else.”