Troy Nilkas is continuing Notre Dame's tradition of excellence at the Tight End position.

Big Shoes to Fill

Oct. 16, 2013

By: Josh Dempsey ’16

The departure of Fighting Irish tight end Tyler Eifert to the National Football League left a significant void in the Notre Dame offense this season. Eifert was one of the most prolific tight ends to rise through the ranks at Notre Dame, a program with a history of developing top-notch tight ends such as Ken MacAfee, Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, and NFL great Dave Casper.

Heading into the 2013 season, coaches and players knew that filling the shoes of Eifert would be no easy task.

But those shoes may just be the perfect fit for junior tight end Troy Niklas. The 6-7, 270-pound native of Fullterton, Calif., however may find that those fit snuggly. Niklas has an inch in height and twenty pounds in weight on Eifert, and he uses his size to his advantage. It is not uncommon, and it is usually the case, that two to three opposing defenders are needed to take Niklas down. He is a Goliath among Davids on the gridiron.

This behemoth aspect of Niklas’ game has not gone unnoticed by his Irish teammates. They coined the name “Hercules” for him almost as soon as he arrived at training camp before his freshmen year. Former Notre Dame linebacker, Manti Te’o, could often be heard shouting “Herc!” across the locker room to gain Nicklas’ attention.

“It wasn’t just Hercules,” Niklas laughs, “The guys called me everything. I was Thor, Captain America — really any kind of super hero; you name it and they probably have called me it.”

When inquiring as to how the nicknames first started, Niklas explains.

“It really started when I came into training camp. I trained really hard before I got here, and I was on a pretty strict diet, so I was pretty cut up. I don’t know, I guess seeing a guy my size come in looking the way I did turn some heads and that earned me some nicknames.”

Niklas’ rise as the “Hercules” of Notre Dame almost did not happen. Niklas attended Servite High School in Anaheim — a football powerhouse and a traditional feeder school for the USC football program. Having all the skills, size, and speed needed to compete at USC, Niklas surprised many with his decision to attend Notre Dame.

“A part of me wanted to do something different. The values of [Notre Dame] really aligned with my own. I visited here and loved it; I thought it would be the best place for me to go.”

Notre Dame couldn’t be happier with Niklas’ decision, seeing the impact he has been able to make on both sides of the ball since he’s arrived.

After his commitment to the Fighting Irish, the first question being asked by fans and analysts was whether he’d be playing on the offensive or defensive line. Niklas spent time at offensive guard and defensive tackle, and was a highly-touted lineman in California. Because of Niklas’ athletic ability, head coach Brian Kelly moved him to outside linebacker for his freshmen year where he started all 12 games. The moves didn’t stop there. After his first year, Niklas was moved to tight end during spring practices. It seemed a pretty drastic change, but despite his size, he can run a 4.79 40-yard dash. For those of you acquainted with physics: that is a force to be reckoned with when the ball is in his hands.

The switch has proven to be an ideal spot for Niklas as it was preferred position in high school.

“I played guard my senior year of high school and I kind of had to bite the bullet, because that’s where my coach wanted me,” he says. “If I had my choice, I would have played tight end. But being a part of a team, I respected my coaches and played where they needed me most.”

Niklas kept a positive attitude about the situation.

“I looked at it in the most optimistic way as possible and that I would learn to block better and improve my skills in that area.” Rather than being defined by a single position on the field, Niklas took the lessons and skills from all the roles he has played and has been able to synthesize them into the player he is today.

“I’ve been playing football since I was seven, and I’ve played every position except center and safety” he says. “I would say that my football IQ is higher than average based on all those experiences. Knowing the techniques of tackling and leverage helps my technique in breaking those tackles when I’m playing tight end.” Niklas’ experience, size, and natural talent make him one of the most promising members in the Fighting Irish program.

There may be some big shoes to fill, but this `Herc’ might just need to find himself an even bigger pair.