Chicago Colleges: Troy Niklas

NFL dream a balancing act for Kelly

May, 21, 2014
May 21
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OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. -- Brian Kelly was pleased with Notre Dame's draft showing two weeks ago. His comments before the draft had suggested that he was less-than-pleased with every former Irish player in the draft.

But Kelly says that there is a middle ground, as he is happy to help his players pursue the NFL, so long as the allure of the pro dream doesn't cloud their judgments while in school.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIStephon Tuitt drew some ire from Brian Kelly for his NFL draft decision.
"It was a matter of priorities for me. It was just a matter of making sure that the priorities were placed in the right perspective," Kelly said. "I have no problem talking about the NFL and making sure that it's the dream, if that's your dream, that we keep that dream alive for you, and that we provide you every opportunity to get there. I just felt that maybe that the priority maybe got pushed out of what I believe to be the pecking order."

That pecking order, he said, is a degree, a playing career with the Irish and then, if everything breaks right, the NFL.

The Irish's eight draftees this season featured three underclassmen, with Kelly clearly irked by the decisions of juniors Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III to turn pro. He mentioned as much on national signing day, saying that he needed to do a better job of educating his players on the NFL, and that he would have a serious problem recruiting someone whose intentions were to spend just three years in school.

Kelly's intent, he explained recently, is the same as others in his position. Notre Dame, after all, made waves this past season by sending top recruiting targets "Pots of Gold" -- 477 pieces of mail to represent what had been the school's number of NFL draft picks.

"If I feel like you're not playing for Notre Dame, and you're playing for your NFL career before you're playing for Notre Dame, that's where the rub is for me," Kelly said. "So if I get a little bit off on comments about a guy, it could be because that NFL is starting to overtake playing for Notre Dame. It's not just me, though. Every college football coach in the BCS has got to deal with the same thing, just have to be very careful with it, you have to be very good with your players about it.

"But it's a fine line, it's a balancing act. You want what's best for your player, right? Because you want his career to continue and have a chance to play in the NFL, but you want what's best for Notre Dame, too. So you have to be very careful with the two. I just don't want that to be NFL, then Notre Dame."

Coming off the Irish's best draft turnout since they had 10 players picked in the 1994 draft, Kelly -- who has now had four first-rounders picked at Notre Dame -- sees the pro results as validation of what he's been building during his five-year run in South Bend, Ind. Only LSU (nine) had more players drafted this year than Notre Dame, which was tied with Alabama for the second-best showing two weeks ago.

"I think more than anything else is that we're developing our players. That the players are developing, and I think the NFL really likes the program and what we're doing within the program," Kelly said. "They like the way that they're being developed from a mental and physical standpoint. They believe that they can take the rigors of being in the NFL, from the year-round conditioning, from the way we practice, from the way they prepare. I think they look at it in totality, they see everything.

"And look, that doesn't mean you're going to have eight guys every year, but when they see a guy that they think can play, they're going to take a shot at a kid from Notre Dame."

Historic draft weekend for Notre Dame

May, 12, 2014
May 12
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Notre Dame walked away from NFL draft weekend with eight of its former players getting picked, tied with Alabama for the second most of any school in the country, behind LSU's nine. The eight picks also marked the most in a single draft for the Irish in 20 years, as they had 10 draftees in 1994.

In addition, six former Notre Dame players signed with NFL clubs after the draft, with five of those players coming from last season's team.

Seven of Notre Dame's defensive starters from the Discover BCS National Championship following the 2012 season have now been drafted as well: Kapron Lewis-Moore (Ravens, 200th), Manti Te'o (Chargers, 38th) and Zeke Motta (Falcons, 244th) last year; Stephon Tuitt (Steelers, 46th), Louis Nix (Texans, 83rd), Prince Shembo (Falcons, 139th) and Bennett Jackson (Giants, 187th) this year.

It's not a stretch to say that linebacker Danny Spond, who also started against Alabama in the title game, was on track to be drafted prior to retiring before last season because of hemiplegic migraines. It's also worth noting that safety Jamoris Slaughter, who was drafted 175th overall by the Browns last year, started on the Irish's 2012 defense before suffering a season-ending Achilles' tear in Week 3. Two defensive starters from that title game, KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley, still have two years of eligibility left at Notre Dame.

Here's a recap of Notre Dame's 2014 draft weekend. Irish transfers Shaquelle Evans (fourth round, 114th overall) and Aaron Lynch (fifth, 150th) were both drafted as well.

DRAFTED

LT Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys (first round, 16th overall)

DE Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers (second, 46th)

TE Troy Niklas, Arizona Cardinals (second, 52nd)

NG Louis Nix, Houston Texans (third, 83rd)

LG Chris Watt, San Diego Chargers (third, 89th)

LB Prince Shembo, Atlanta Falcons (fourth, 139th)

CB Bennett Jackson, New York Giants (sixth, 187th)

WR TJ Jones, Detroit Lions (sixth, 189th)

UNDRAFTED FREE AGENT SIGNINGS

RB George Atkinson III, Oakland Raiders

LB Dan Fox, New York Giants

LB Carlo Calabrese, Cleveland Browns

QB Tommy Rees, Washington Redskins

NG Kona Schwenke, Kansas City Chiefs

C/G Mike Golic Jr., New Orleans Saints

Notre Dame spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
11:00
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Three things we learned in the spring
  • The QB rotation is stable: Everett Golson is back from his 2013 suspension, hardened and bigger than ever. And Malik Zaire has taken full advantage of the opportunity Brian Kelly has given him, after Kelly declared the job open. (Notre Dame had just two scholarship quarterbacks this spring.) While few expect Golson to relinquish his hold on the starting role, the prospect of a hungry, capable backup has to make new QBs coach Matt LaFleur happy.
  • Greg Bryant looks like a playmaker: A rough start to Bryant's career last year might have been a blessing in disguise, as knee tendinitis allowed him to redshirt and essentially get a do-over in 2014. The returns this spring have been phenomenal, with the No. 2 running back prospect from the Class of 2013 bringing a burst to the run game that was absent last season. He turned heads in the spring game and says he is carrying a more mature head on his shoulders after last season, as he's hungry to get back on the field and make plays.
  • The secondary is primed to breakout: Notre Dame does not lack for bodies among its defensive backs. KeiVarae Russell enters his third year of starting ready to be one of the nation's top corners, and the Irish return four safeties with starting experience -- one of whom, Matthias Farley, moved to nickelback this spring. Throw in Florida transfer Cody Riggs at corner this summer -- as well as the aggressive approach of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who will bring more press coverage -- and the secondary has all of the ingredients to be very good in 2014.
Three questions for the fall
  • Where will the pass-rush come from? The Irish said goodbye to Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two linemen who made their living in opposing backfields. There are simply no big, athletic bodies like them on this year's roster. With a revamped front-seven, VanGorder will be tasked with finding new ways to generate pressure on the quarterback. Perhaps senior Ishaq Williams, now primarily at end, can add a boost to the line.
  • Which receivers will step up? With DaVaris Daniels (academics) gone this spring, it was essentially an open audition for Irish receivers, only two of whom had ever caught balls from Golson before (Chris Brown and tight end Ben Koyack). Corey Robinson has continued his growth after a promising freshman campaign, and Koyack will have to emerge as a bigger receiving threat after handling mostly blocking duties next to the departed Troy Niklas. Daniels' expected return this summer will provide a major boost to this group.
  • Will special teams play finally improve? Few areas have given Notre Dame trouble in recent years the way special teams has, particularly the punt return game. Awful weather this spring limited outdoor work, which limited ideal return opportunities. Bryant could emerge as the guy at punt return, though Tarean Folston and Torii Hunter Jr. may contend for chances as well.
One way-too-early prediction

Notre Dame will average better than 30 points per game for the first time in the Kelly era. In Golson, the Irish have the ideal quarterback in place to run the Kelly offense. And with the defense taking massive personnel hits up front while adjusting to a new scheme, the offense will be relied on more than ever to stretch the field, carry the load and put points on the board.

Irish confident in young tight ends

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Scott Booker and his players take a lot of pride in the tradition of excellence their group has produced. But despite Tight End U facing more uncertainty at the position than in recent memory, Booker, the Notre Dame tight ends coach, does not find himself having to explain the legacy that this relatively young unit is trying to carry on.

[+] EnlargeBen Koyack
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesBen Koyack emerged as a receiving option last season, setting himself up for a breakout season as a junior.
"When they come here and they get recruited, it's easy to know about Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Anthony Fasano, Mark Bavaro back in the day," Booker said. "And obviously now recently, Tyler (Eifert), Kyle and Troy (Niklas). That's easy. That's what you do in recruiting, you do your homework.

"And when you do your homework as a tight end, coming out of high school, if you want to be successful, if you want to be on national TV every day and you want to catch a lot of balls and you want to have an opportunity to go to the league, I don't know what place is better. So you don't have to tell them where they're at."

Niklas' surprising early departure to the NFL put the Fighting Irish's tight ends on a learning curve this spring. Ben Koyack was forced into the No. 1 spot, with redshirt freshmen Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe behind him. Freshmen Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua will arrive this summer.

Koyack has drawn plenty of praise for the way he has carried himself among the youngsters since assuming his new role atop the depth chart.

"I think just the way he's coming every day prepared, ready to go," Booker said. "Watching the film before we watch the film as a unit. Talking to the guys, talking to Mike Heuerman, going out and eating with those guys. And just showing them how to be Notre Dame football players, and specifically Notre Dame tight ends, and the expectations that are put on us on a day-in, day-out basis. In all those facets he's been doing a better job continuing to grow."

Booker didn't want to compare Koyack to anyone before him, but the Oil City, Pa., native spoke with a renewed sense of confidence early in the spring, which can likely be attributed to his strong finish to the 2013 season. As a No. 2 tight end who was relegated to mostly blocking duties for much of last season, Koyack recorded 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns, with all of those catches but a 19-yard scoring strike coming during the Irish's final six games.

Notre Dame is hoping that such improvement can have a trickle-down effect throughout the unit. Heuerman, who saw his redshirt all but confirmed early last season after having surgery to repair a hernia, is looking to add more weight, with the 225-pounder saying he sees himself adding 15 more pounds.

"It's all about making plays at the end of the day, and that's what I know I have to do," Heuerman said. "And now that Troy's gone, it kind of opens the door for someone to step in, so I'm excited to be able to be here now competing for that position and be here for summer and going to camp and (at the) end of the season still competing and making plays and doing what I do best, so I look forward to that."

Irish lunch links

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
11:00
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OK, so I might have to hop on the "True Detective" bandwagon this weekend.

Irish lunch links

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
12:00
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THIS WINTER.

Position battles to watch: No. 4

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
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Our series looking at the top position battles to watch this spring continues with a spot the Irish probably didn't think they'd need to worry about in 2014.

Tight end

[+] EnlargeBen Koyack
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesBen Koyack will step into a lead role in Notre Dame's offense with Troy Niklas leaving early.
To be sure, the fact that this is not a discussion about the No. 1 spot should calm a few nerves, if that's possible. Still, the surprising departure of Troy Niklas has accelerated the learning curve for what is a deep but relatively untested group of tight ends on the Notre Dame roster.

Ben Koyack emerged plenty last year in the No. 2 role, stepping up to catch 10 passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns -- with all but one of those catches and scores coming during the season's final six games. The 6-foot-5, 261-pound junior took plenty of pressure off Niklas and the rest of Notre Dame's more prominent pass-catchers, and he was set to build off that performance going into his senior year in 2014.

Now? The pressure is on Koyack to perform as the top target at tight end, and it is up to someone behind him to develop as a blocker and become another reliable receiving option for the Irish offense. Fortunately for Notre Dame, there are plenty of bodies at that position for a school that can boast the moniker Tight End U., and competition this spring will be a nice starting point to see who emerges in the fall.

Alex Welch is gone, choosing to play his final season at Miami (Ohio), but Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman should both have benefited from redshirt campaigns last fall as freshmen, allowing them to develop in the weight room and be more physically ready for the pounding they are sure to take at the position. Smythe was listed last year at 6-4 1/2, 235 pounds. Heuerman was at 6-3 1/2, 225, and he also had the added benefit of enrolling last spring.

It doesn't hurt that the Irish added a pair of 2014 ESPN 300 prospects in Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar, but they won't be on campus until fall practice. For now, it is up to Smythe and Heuerman to gain separation and prove that they are viable options if and when their numbers are called.

Kelly, Irish get class they need

February, 6, 2014
Feb 6
9:30
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Brian Kelly spoke like Brian Kelly for much of his Wednesday press conference, touting the distinctions of his program by stressing 40-year life decisions (not four) and by mentioning the different (though not necessarily better) shopping aisle that is Notre Dame football.

For the first time in what felt like a long time, the fifth-year Irish coach enjoyed a relatively drama-free signing day. His 22 verbal commitments going into the day all delivered on their word without any extracurriculars, and he even added an early-morning surprise from four-star defensive tackle Daniel Cage, giving the Irish their second win over Michigan State since September and further beefing up a class that finished with more linemen (12) than every other position combined (11).

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsThis may not have been Notre Dame's highest-ranked recruiting class, but fifth-year coach Brian Kelly has developed a recruiting identity for the Irish.
But Kelly hit on another theme rather decisively early on, one that struck his program fairly hard in the weeks following last season's 9-4 campaign: the pros, and where they fit into the plans of his program.

"When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a national championship," he said. "If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players because I don't want guys to come here and not finish their degree. I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a national championship and be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. That's what I want, if that's what they want."

No, this is likely not a coincidence in light of the early NFL departures of Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, the first Irish underclassmen in the Kelly era to leave school without their degrees since Kyle Rudolph back in Year 1. And this does not exactly vibe smoothly with the program's "Pot of Gold" initiative that made headlines recently when Notre Dame sent packages to recruits containing 477 letters -- one for every draft pick to come out of Notre Dame.

But Kelly was deliberate from the get-go. He was cocksure. His was a seasoned voice speaking after four years at one place, having weathered the sleeplessness that accompanies a national title game appearance, four underclassman departures, and a number of defections and suspensions in what is quickly turning into a long Irish tenure.

And on a day when positivity and hyperbole reigned across the college football world, Kelly allowed for some genuine self-evaluation. He said he had to do a better job of educating his players on the NFL. He conceded that he had not initially cast a wide enough net when evaluating prospects on the defensive line, the unit that took the biggest hit after the 2013 season. He might have cut the sales job short for the sake of simply coaching his football team, comfortable and confident in what he wants and what it takes to win big at Notre Dame.

This Irish recruiting class, ranked 11th by ESPN RecruitingNation, is not his best. It's not nearly as good as last year's, which was ranked fourth before losing a top-10 player in the country. Nor is it as good as consecutive ninth-ranked classes in 2012 and 2011, which ended up seeing five of its top players move on to different schools.

The ranking mattered little to Kelly or his staff. They had already taken their third Irish team to a perfect regular season two years ago with somewhat of a hodgepodge cast of characters still finding their way on their respective sides of the ball. They likely believe that, if not for a gross academic oversight by Everett Golson, they could have been bound for potentially bigger and better things this past fall.

So what if this year's haul lacks a five-star phenom. So what if it features eight three-star prospects.

"I just was a little bit too narrow-focused on where we were with our defensive line, and I needed to just be a little bit more -- I needed to change my view of how we recruited defensive linemen and open it up a little bit more," Kelly said. "It was strictly a decision that I needed to make. We did it a little late, and we were fortunate that we were able to get two very quality defensive linemen late in the cycle here, but we've made that adjustment in our profile."

The adjustment paid dividends through the signing day fax from Cage and through a trio of three-star newcomers who committed in the previous three months: Jhonathon Williams (November), Kolin Hill (December) and Peter Mokwuah (January).

These were hardly highly sought-after prospects, at least by Notre Dame's usual standards. There probably isn't a Tuitt walking through that door. But Kelly has learned better than to allow a departure like that one change a season's outlook, showing enough faith in his player-development process -- and in an oh-so-close-to-being-filled roster, now at 84 scholarships -- to secure a foundation for years to come.

"I think if you really boil it down, it's about the front seven and the offensive line," he said. "Yeah, there's some great skill players that I'll talk about, but you're winning up front, and building that depth in the front seven and the offensive line really stands out in this class, and then having some really good players across the board for us."

If that's not going to jump out on brochures, so be it. Notre Dame has an identity, and its leaders show enough resolve to push the envelope with a class that's smaller in stars but tailored in fit.

ND players leaving early and replacements

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
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For three years, Brian Kelly had success like few others in recruiting players back to school. Sure, Kyle Rudolph left after Year 1 of the Kelly era, but since then the Notre Dame coach had successfully gotten Michael Floyd, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Louis Nix and Zack Martin to come back to the Irish for their fourth (and, in Martin's case, fifth) seasons of college ball.

That changed drastically this season. With several highly projected underclassmen on their roster, the Irish figured to say goodbye to one or two underclassmen early. And even when Kelly said in late December that he had submitted paperwork to the NFL advisory board for Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, few expected all three to leave school early.

Then January came along, and within one week's span, all three players declared for the draft, choosing to avoid the recent trend and skip their final seasons. Each had his reasons, so here's a look at the trio and a look at who on the Irish roster will be tasked with filling the big shoes in 2014.

(Worth noting: Nix, who had a fifth season of eligibility available to him in 2014, is not included in this group, because he graduated in December.)

Leaving: Stephon Tuitt
Replacement: Isaac Rochell
The outlook: It is worth noting that Justin Utupo will return for a fifth year and that veterans Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Chase Hounshell (shoulder) are expected to be back at full health next fall after both missed the 2013 season. Together, all will be counted on to replace the production of Tuitt, who was one of the best pass-rushers in school history. Still, if the Irish are looking for a youngster to step up, they will turn to Rochell, who ended up seeing much more playing time as a true freshman than initially expected this past fall, given the injury bug that affected the Irish in the trenches. ESPN's No. 139 overall player from the class of 2013 played in 11 games, recording 10 total tackles. The 6-foot-3.5, 280-pounder is a far cry from the 6-foot-6.5, 312-pound Tuitt physically, but most typically are. The bottom line is Tuitt will be the hardest of Notre Dame's early departures to replace, but Rochell will probably see his role increase the most in his sophomore season. Junior Sheldon Day, entering his second year as a starter, will be counted on even more this coming fall as well.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Celebration
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCam McDaniel (33) led the Irish with 705 rushing yards in 2013.
Leaving: George Atkinson III
Replacement: Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant
The outlook: Atkinson should be the easiest of the early departures to replace, as his playing time and production took a big dip late during this past season. He was ultimately suspended for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for what Kelly called a violation of team rules, a violation that Atkinson later tweeted (and then deleted) consisted of him texting during a team meal. Still, the Irish have the always-reliable McDaniel back for another year, and the Coppell, Texas, native actually had more carries (152-93) and rushing yards (742-583) than Atkinson in 2013 while helping with kick-return duties as well. The most important developments to keep an eye on, though, are those of Folston and Bryant, both of whom came to Notre Dame as highly touted four-star backs expected to deliver immediate boosts. Bryant had trouble gaining playing time early and ultimately suffered a knee injury that forced him to take a medical redshirt, but Folston came on strong late in the season, finishing with 88 carries for 470 yards and three touchdowns. Things will be tougher next season with a rebuilt offensive line, and all of these backs need to improve as pass-catchers, but there remains plenty of promise in the fold. Let's not rule out redshirt junior Amir Carlisle, either.

Leaving: Troy Niklas
Replacement: Ben Koyack
The outlook: Niklas, who began his career at linebacker, played tight end at Notre Dame for just two years, coming on this past fall after the departure of Eifert, as he hauled in 32 passes for 498 yards and five touchdowns. He was improving as a blocker and was on track to become one of the best tight ends in the country next season. Now Koyack will be tasked with a bigger workload in his senior season. He, too, came on strong late last season, finishing with 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns, though he often played in two-tight-end sets with Niklas and gave the Irish plenty of offensive flexibility.

Irish lunch links

December, 30, 2013
12/30/13
11:00
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Most Bears-Packers thing ever.

Niklas expects to return for senior year

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Tight end Troy Niklas doesn't know what he doesn't know, which for now means that he is expecting to return to Notre Dame for his senior season, unless something unforeseen changes before the Jan. 15 deadline for early entry into the draft.

"I mean, there's always the possibility," Niklas said, giving himself some room. "I can't really say — I'm pretty sure I'm coming back."

[+] EnlargeTroy Niklas
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)Troy Niklas is expecting to return for his senior season.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly submitted pro evaluations for three underclassmen: Niklas, Stephon Tuitt and George Atkinson III. Niklas figures to be the only of the trio with a serious decision to make about his future, given the likelihood that Tuitt gets picked in the first round.

The 6-foot-7, 270-pound Niklas was one of eight semifinalists for the John Mackey Award this season, as he caught 28 passes for 422 yards with five touchdowns as the former linebacker continued to evolve into a complete tight end.

"He does so much for us," Kelly said. "Eight sacks this year, and he's a big reason why. If you're looking at all the jobs he does for us during the game, if he's not catching the ball, he's extremely effective for us in other areas."

Niklas hopes the process of hearing back from the NFL can point him in the right direction on what he needs to work on for next season, though he's admittedly unfamiliar with the process.

"I have no idea. I'll be learning a lot," Niklas said. "We'll probably go over it after the bowl game, most likely, and then I'll be able to tell you what goes on and stuff like that. For now, I don't really know anything."

Notes: Kelly, a Boston native, was thrilled about the Irish playing Boston College at Fenway Park in 2015, a game that was announced Friday. "You guys were all kind of talking about my contract last year — the reason that wasn't signed was the Fenway game. It was being negotiated. They're hard negotiators in Boston. We were finally able to get my family Green Monster seats, so then I signed the contract." … There are no new injuries to report since bowl practices began. As for the already injured, Chase Hounshell (shoulder) is practicing with the scout team, Nicky Baratti (shoulder) will be held out of contact until the spring and Tony Springmann (ACL, then infection) might not return until next fall. … Kelly half-kiddingly said the first and second-team offensive lines are essentially working as one, with Conor Hanratty ready to move to center if necessary, and with Mark Harrell behind him at guard. Walk-on Kevin Carr is available as well.

Irish lunch links

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
11:00
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McDaniel has fun with celebrity attention

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Cam McDaniel was talking Wednesday about the photo seen 'round the world, joking that there is nothing to heckle him about. He said that Brian Kelly told him he heard the running back is now a model, and that a teammate later informed him of a rumor going around that McDaniel and fellow junior Troy Niklas would be leaving school after this season to pursue modeling careers.

"Maybe Troy," McDaniel said, "but not myself."

[+] EnlargeCam McDaniel
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Cam McDaniel photo everyone is talking about.
Funny enough, Niklas had sneaked into the pack of reporters surrounding McDaniel at that moment -- as discreet as a 6-foot-7, 270-pound tight end can be -- and had some questions of his own.

"WordPress," Niklas said of his media outlet, "what exactly do you call the look, and how long have you been working on it?"

And of course, McDaniel just happened to be in position to deliver the perfect line, thanks to his movie choice last week.

"People are starting to call it 'Blue Steel,' " McDaniel said. "The funny thing is literally the night before all this went viral, I was watching 'Zoolander' -- I kid you not, promise you. And didn't have any relation to like all this. People had not mentioned any model-esque type things before this and then the next day all of this goes viral, Blue Steel-type stuff, and it was so funny. It really was. A very strange coincidence."

This is the kind of attention McDaniel now finds himself dealing with after losing his helmet against USC and, seemingly in an instant, striking a pose amidst being tackled. He has since been on NBC's "The Today Show," with the 5-foot-10, 207-pound running back seeing his name and face plastered over all sorts of different pop culture outlets.

"It was pretty funny because I remember the play where his helmet came off, and I remember him kind of spinning down and he was kind of behind me," left tackle Zack Martin said. "He got spun down pretty good, so to think that his face looked like that when he was going down ... "

Niklas, like the media horde around McDaniel, wanted to know if the Coppell, Texas native had any other tricks up his sleeve.

A cameo in "Zoolander 2," perhaps? After all, McDaniel did mention that he can turn, and even run, left.

"Is there another look you're working on that we could see maybe debut pretty soon here?" Niklas asked. "Magnum?"

"A lot of things go on underneath the helmet so just really focused on that right now," McDaniel said. "But if it pops off then we'll see."

Bye week evaluations: Offense

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
4:00
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Notre Dame's first bye week comes at the season's midway point, giving us the perfect opportunity to make a decent evaluation of what this team's strengths and weaknesses are following a 4-2 start. We'll break this down into four categories over the next four days: offense, defense, special teams, coaching staff.

Without further ado, here is the first installment.

OFFENSE

Grade: C+

Summary: Notre Dame is averaging 27.3 points per game, a slight increase from last year's 25.77 mark. Of course, part of that is a result of playing from behind, something the Irish did against Michigan and Oklahoma, both losses. They found themselves in another shootout this past weekend against Arizona State and proved they were able to pull out a contest far different from some of the meat-grinders they endured in 2012.

[+] EnlargeTommy Rees
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTommy Rees has nine TD passes and just one interception in Notre Dame's four victories.
Tommy Rees has been Tommy Rees. He eclipsed the 300-yard mark in the first three games. He threw two picks in a loss at Michigan, a game in which the Irish defense did the offense no favors. Rees misfired several times against a stout Michigan State defense, but he protected the ball and the Irish escaped the Spartans in a game reminiscent of last season. He became the easy scapegoat against the Sooners after throwing three picks — which Oklahoma turned into 21 points — but he received little help from his offensive line and receivers on two of those gaffes. Andrew Hendrix has appeared here and there, but Rees remains the Irish's best option at quarterback. Criticize Rees for his physical attributes if you must, but if you're going to get mad about the offense's make-up, blame the starting quarterback who got himself suspended for school this semester — after the program spent a whole spring investing in him to take charge. Rees stayed through the good and bad, has endured a lot more than most signal-callers has had to, and has kept a strong mindset through it all. Go back and watch the Purdue game, especially late in the second half, as he rallied the offense on the sideline, commanding the group's attention in a way only a senior with the respect of the entire locker room could. Brian Kelly has stuck by Rees, and he will continue to do so as long as Rees remains the offense's best option, which is what he is.

His offensive line has been stellar in pass protection, ranking eighth nationally in fewest sacks allowed per game (.60), surrendering just four on the season. That's all the more impressive when you consider Rees' lack of threat with his legs. Still, the running game had trouble getting off on the right foot, tallying three consecutive under-100-yard performances in games 2-4 before George Atkinson III broke out against Oklahoma. The Irish continued to build off that ground success last week against the Sun Devils, rushing for 145 yards. Slowly, the Irish have made progress in that department, raising their rushing yards per game average from 114.3 to 137 since Week 4.

In the pass-catching department, meanwhile, TJ Jones has been every bit as good as advertised, with the captain hauling in 33 passes for 481 yards and four touchdowns. He has had two 100-yard games and a 98-yard effot, absorbing hit after hit and becoming the kind of reliable target for Rees that Tyler Eifert was in 2011 and 2012. He has gotten big lifts here and there from DaVaris Daniels (25 catches, 385 yards, 4 TDs) and Troy Niklas (14, 250, 4), and the Irish have regularly played true freshmen who have made some minor contributions (Corey Robinson, James Onwualu, Will Fuller).

Overall, the offense has been uneven, as it has yet to really turn in a complete performance outside of Week 1 against a Temple team that is still seeking its first win. The Irish appeared to be moving closer to that direction against ASU, but a pick-six put a dent in that performance. The bye week will serve them well as they prepare for a skilled but depleted USC defense that should give the offense its biggest test before Senior Day against BYU.

Eifert gone, Tight End U. seeks next answer

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
9:00
AM CT
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The expectations for the next-in-line at Tight End U. are as basic as can be for three relatively untested faces. What Alex Welch, Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas have done in two-plus years hardly registers when measured against the legacies Tyler Eifert and others before him have left behind.

So yes, Niklas concedes that, just more than halfway through spring ball, there is still a feeling-out period among Notre Dame's tight ends, a trio that will bear large responsibility in one way or another on an offense that returns upward of seven starters but only two of its top six pass-catchers from last season.

"That's a tough question to answer," Niklas said. "But I would say the expectation for our group is just to block when we need to block, catch passes when we need to catch passes and just be as dynamic and aggressive and open to new things as we can and just be really flexible with what we do."

All is up for grabs at tight end, where Eifert re-wrote the school record books in grabbing 140 passes for 1,840 yards during the past three seasons.

[+] EnlargeTroy Niklas
Mark L. Baer/US PresswireTroy Niklas counted this touchdown against Boston College among his five catches last season.
There is Niklas, a converted linebacker entering his third season with the Irish and second at tight end after grabbing five passes for 75 yards and a score in 2012. There is the junior Koyack, the most seasoned of the three despite grabbing just four balls the past two years while being limited to mostly blocking. And there is the redshirt junior Welch, who missed all of last season after an anterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee suffered during fall camp ruined any hopes of becoming Eifert's No. 2 in 2012.

The distinction of succeeding a likely first-round pick in Eifert -- and NFL players Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Anthony Fasano before him -- is not lost on this group.

"I wouldn't say it's a pressure, it's kind of like a prestige," Welch said. "You feel good about yourself to be a part of the tight ends at the University of Notre Dame, but at the same time we're not trying to be any of those tight ends; we're going to be ourselves. We lost Tyler Eifert, he's a great tight end. He'll be playing in the NFL. But none of us are trying to replace him. We're just trying to be ourselves and go out there and help the team."

For Welch, that means getting back up to speed after a dream season spent on the sideline. Holding his own in winter workouts was the first big hurdle cleared, and now he is hoping to use the spring to make up for what was lost in a year off the field, with fall camp later serving as the true barometer among his peers.

"You don't really forget, just when you're out there on the field you take for granted certain things," Welch said. "When you get 15 practices under your belt you feel much more comfortable, especially after I got my knee done."

Emerging from the unit as the next future pro is currently off the radar. For now, this spring is simply a start toward filling out one of the offense's biggest holes.

"[Tight ends] coach [Scott] Booker always has high expectations in general," Koyack said, "but I feel like as long as we just do what we're coached to do, we may not be put in the same exact situation as Tyler was put into, but as long as we do well in the situations that we are put into I think that's pretty much the expectations of the group at this point."

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