When spring practice opens on March 20 the sophomore tight end will represent Notre Dame’s best shot at replacing All-American tight end Tyler Eifert, whose record-setting college career ended at the BCS National Championship Game.
Niklas didn’t make a catch against Alabama even though he started the game.
Two days before kickoff he soaked up the rays inside Sun Life Stadium, enjoying the meteorological upgrade in Miami from South Bend. A school official tried to get the 6-foot-7, 260-pound Niklas under a tent not made for players his size. He found some shade instead.
Come spring practice there won’t be any place for Niklas to hide as he makes a presumed move into the starting lineup. The Irish will have four tight ends on the roster in Niklas, Alex Welch, Ben Koyack and Mike Heuerman. Welch is barely seven months removed from ACL surgery. Heuerman is an early enrollee.
“I’m looking forward to it, it’s gonna be fun,” Niklas said. “I think that I’ll become the main tight end if I keep working hard and things go well. That’s all I can control, what I can do today.”
Most of Niklas’ days last season were steps forward. He finished with five catches for 75 yards and his first career touchdown at Boston College. He also started seven games, becoming a mainstay in Notre Dame’s offense that trended toward two tight end sets.
The outlier in the tight end’s climb came against Stanford when he was tossed aside by the Cardinal outside linebackers, which included a strip sack of Everett Golson in the end zone. Chase Thomas recovered, giving Stanford its only touchdown.
The takeaway was obvious.
“Wow. These guys are really good. I’ve got to get a lot better,” Niklas said. “It was a really good experience to go against an All-American and an extremely good pass rusher. I got that in my back pocket as motivation and also to know what good pass rushers do.”
If the gains Niklas made didn’t always show on the stat sheet, he heard them in practice. The tone and tenor of position coach Scott Booker changed into November as Niklas improved his game.
“At first it had to be getting him to understand how to line up, getting him to understand formations, how our offensive plays are called,” Booker said. “Then next comes the technical aspects and that’s where we’re at right now. He’s got more to do. He hasn’t reached his potential at all.
“He has some God-given ability just being 6-7, 270 pounds and being able to run and bend and do the things that he can do. We haven’t used him in the pass game, haven’t detached him. That’s another evolution that will come, just being more confortable in space and blocking as well. He hasn’t tapped out his blocking.”
Niklas put it in more academic terms.
“It started at the 100 level and now it’s the 200 or 300 level,” he said. “Eifert is still at the 800 level.”
Next month Niklas will take another step toward mastering the position while following Eifert’s lead. The Mackey Award winner should be a second-round pick at worst, which would make him Notre Dame’s fourth at the tight end position in the last eight years.
Niklas has a long way to go to get to the levels of Eifert, Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Anthony Fasano. But there’s not much doubt he has the physical tools to do it.
“Looking back, moving to tight end wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done or the most fun thing, but I guess overall it was a great experience,” Niklas said. “I feel I’ve gotten a lot better as a football player and as an individual.
“Obviously the Stanford game was a low of my season, but it also afforded me the opportunity get better in that area and improve myself because that’s usually when you find out where to improve, when you fail.”