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November 21, 2013

Niklas gets validation

Troy Niklas got a congratulatory text from his father Don earlier this week.

About what, the Notre Dame tight end had no clue.

So as big as being named a semifinalist for the Mackey Award might be, following Tyler Eifert on the national awards circuit didn't register with Niklas. It was just another piece of evidence he's a worthy heir to Notre Dame's tight end tradition that's produced a first-round pick and three second-round selections in the last decade.

Eifert brought home Notre Dame's first Mackey Award last year.

"I just got a text from my dad, he was like, 'Hey, congrats!" I was like, 'On what?'" Niklas said. "I think it's really cool. It's kind of an indicator that I'm doing pretty well."

Niklas enters Notre Dame's home finale within touching distance of multiple Notre Dame records in addition to enhancing his Mackey credentials. His five touchdowns are one off the single-season Irish record (Ken MacAfee, 1977) and if the position produces two more touchdowns this season it will match the program high set in 1958.

Nationally, Niklas ranks sixth among FBS tight ends in touchdown receptions and 11th in receiving yardage.

Within the Irish offense Niklas has been among Tommy Rees' most reliable targets, making 25 catches from just 43 targets. That catch percentage of 58.1 percent trails only TJ Jones among the Irish starters, although tight end Ben Koyack has been even better with nine catches off 13 targets, 69.2 percent conversion rate.

"I'd definitely say that I'm developing the way I thought I would," Niklas said. "I'm not quite there, but I'm getting better every week. Just becoming a more dynamic player. Just the little things. Catching every ball, being consistent, running every route perfectly and understanding the defenses."

Niklas believes those "little things" have been shrinking with the Irish coaching staff. If his sophomore season was figuring out who to block, his junior year has become how to block, which has taken an even more menacing development since.

"The little thing now would be, 'Why isn't this guy on the ground, Troy?' Instead of, 'Why aren't your hands inside?'" Niklas said. "That's considered a little thing now."

Fundamentals aside, Notre Dame's tight end development has been a major part of the Irish offense this season as Brian Kelly moves toward playing two at the position after opening the season as a three-wide spread team. Koyack's surge has been part of that considering he wasn't targeted before his touchdown against Arizona State. And Niklas has too, maturing from a complementary piece of the Irish offense into a worthy follow up to Eifert.

"I knew that it would just be a process and it would take time for me to develop my skills," Niklas said. "That was one thing I wanted to do, let everyone know that hey, I'm good at catching the ball too.

"It's been a lot more fun too, going to games, being a part of the passing attack."

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