NOTRE DAME — One freshman year might be grueling enough for most college football players, but Troy Niklas had to survive two.
That’s the way he sees it, anyway, when he describes his transition from outside linebacker as a freshman in 2011 to tight end as a sophomore.
Niklas was a high-profile recruit in a class that also brought in Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams. Though his heart was with tight end, a position he flitted in and out of in high school, the 6-foot-6 1/2, 270-pound Niklas was better suited for the new era of Notre Dame defense.
The following year, Niklas was flipped to tight end because head coach Brian Kelly saw a greater need at that position and figured outside linebacker could afford to take the hit.
“I always like a challenge,” Niklas said. “That’s what I came here for. So I enjoyed (defense), but the thing that’s really interesting is that I’ve really had two freshman years, because I was on defense.
“You just get yelled at like a freshman, and then you switch over and it’s like learning a new language, and you’re like a freshman again.”
The water wings are off, though. All-American tight end Tyler Eifert is now playing for the Cincinnati Bengals, which leaves Niklas in position to become the next great product of “Tight End U.”
Niklas’s size has always been there, which makes him such an imposing figure on the offense. Kelly hopes to see Niklas’s game catch up with his frame as preseason camp goes on.
“You have to be skilled in the pass game, catch the football,” Kelly said. “You have to be really, not dominating, but a really accomplished in-line blocker. I’d say in both those areas, he was OK last year. In other words, his size and physical frame were up here and his accomplishments were (down) here. I want to see his accomplishments meet his size and stature.”
Niklas has the added benefit of a year’s mentorship under Eifert, even though the two are cut from different molds. Over the spring, Kelly compared Eifert’s playing style to that of New England Patriot tight end Rob Gronkowski and Niklas’s to former Patriot Aaron Hernandez.
Still, Niklas gleaned a lot from the first round draft pick, such as attention to detail in team meetings and a strict daily regimen.
“He’s just a freak in the way he attacks his day,” Niklas said of Eifert. “I now know how it’s done and what it takes to get to that level.”
He’s getting there, though, and Kelly can see it.
“Just the other day in the red zone, he used his body and his size and complemented it with his pass catching,” Kelly said. “Using his body to box out, and he didn’t have that feel last year. He was a big-bodied guy running around there. He’s getting there. He’s learning and understanding those things, and the same thing in the run game. We’re seeing an improvement in this big young man at the tight end position every day and it’s pretty exciting.”