Jake Brown IrishIllustrated.com Recruiting Analyst
Once it happened the first time, mostly by accident, Troy Niklas decided to put his brute force to work again.
During a recent practice the outside linebacker turned tight end manhandled a blocking dummy, flipping it clean over in the process. While not meant to show off the physical presence his coaches want, consider the point made regardless.
So, Niklas did it again.
“I was just ready to get on the field and kind of let loose on the blocking dummy,” Niklas said. “I don’t know. I didn’t intend to flip it the first time. But then when I found I could I was like, ‘Might as well do it again.’”
The next step for Niklas and fellow tight end Ben Koyack is transferring that physical nature into scrimmages and games on a consistent basis.
Both run behind All-American Tyler Eifert on the depth chart but will be depended upon to do certain things, most of which involve not commanding the football as a receiver. Eifert was second on the team by a wide margin last season with 63 catches for 803 yards and five touchdowns.
Koyack made one catch for five yards during his freshman season while Niklas played defense.
But with the potential for more two tight end sets and the propensity for Eifert to line up split wide, there will be plenty of playing time available at the position. It just isn’t likely to be a glamorous role.
“At this point I’m doing pretty much whatever the coaches need of me,” Koyack said. “If that’s in-line blocking I’ll do that. If coach needs me to catch I’ll do my best to go run around and make a good catch.
“Anyone on this team will tell you the same thing. We’re just gonna do whatever coach needs to help us win games and do the best we can.”
Koyack continues to hone the skills after being a prolific receiver in high school. Niklas, on the other hand, is still transitioning to offense after switching back in the spring. Niklas did play some tight end and offensive tackle at Servite High School in Anaheim, Calif., where he grew into a four-star prospect.
“I would say it’s a complete flipping of the mind,” Niklas said. “Offense is a lot more controlled aggression where defense you can kinda just run all over the place like kind of a wild, crazy man. I would say the biggest change is just learning the offense and getting all the techniques down of the position.”
Doing so has taken on a new level of importance with the injury of Alex Welch. Head coach Brian Kelly confirmed Saturday that Welch suffered a torn ACL last week and will miss the season after surgery.
That leaves Niklas, Koyack and Jake Golic as the depth behind Eifert. Kelly doesn’t plan to make any position switches to shore up the position as he has at dog linebacker with Danny Spond out since Wednesday.
Four-star tight end prospect Mike Heuerman will be added to the tight end group in January as an early enrollee.
“Obviously both of them we feel comfortable with,” Kelly said. “Ben we played last year as a true freshman so we feel pretty good about him. He needs to continue to get better at the point of attack, which he’s committed to doing that. He’s been really good in space for us.
“We’re lucky. To lose a really good player like Alex and have three tight ends, and Jake Golic is getting a lot more work to, we feel good that we’ve got depth at that position that we’ll get the job done. That’s not going to stop us from winning, the tight end position.”
Through the first week of camp reps to Welch, Koyack and Niklas were evenly divided. Moving forward the plan is to use extra reps available since Welch’s injury to drill blocking, a strength of the injured tight end that elevated him up the depth chart.
“Now we’ve just got to focus on doing what Alex was doing. Alex was being physical,” Koyack said. “We all have to step up and be physical and make sure you can’t necessarily notice the absence of a guy, step up and do the role that he was doing too. We’ve all gotta be physical and do our jobs.”