Notre Dame Football: Troy Niklas

Irish's lunch links

May, 23, 2014
May 23
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Enjoy the holiday weekend ...

Irish lunch links

May, 22, 2014
May 22
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Again: How can you not feel bad for Jeff Samardzija?
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."
The NFL draft came and gone, and, as we know by now, it was a pretty good one for Notre Dame. Here's a look at what those in NFL circles are saying about some of the drafted former Irish players and their new employers:

Zack Martin
Mel Kiper Jr. gave the Cowboys a draft of B, but he said Martin can make the Dallas offensive line among the best units in the NFL. … Todd McShay lists Martin as one of his favorites picks. … ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer says the pick of Martin was the Cowboys' best move of the draft… ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins said the Cowboys went for the best player available. … ESPNDallas.com's Jean-Jacques Taylor says the Cowboys made the right move in passing on Johnny Manziel for Martin. … Archer says the Cowboys stayed Tony Romo-friendly by picking Martin. … Watkins says Martin may start at guard, but his future with the Cowboys is at right tackle.

Stephon Tuitt
Kiper gave the Steelers an A-, saying that Tuitt, at his 2012 level, can be a disruptive stud. … McShay lists Tuitt as one of his favorite picks, calling him a top-15 talent who is a great fit for Dick LeBeau. … Pittsburgh defensive line coach John Mitchell says Tuitt would've been a top-10 pick if he were healthy in 2013. … ESPN.com Steelers reporter Scott Brown says taking Tuitt in the second round was the club's best move. … Brown also says that Tuitt is part of a rookie group that will give the Steelers an immediate return.

Troy Niklas
In giving the Cardinals a draft grade of a B, Kiper says coach Bruce Arians might see some of what he loved about the Steelers' Heath Miller in Niklas. … ESPN.com Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss says Niklas solidified a tight end group that is the foundation of Arians' offense. … Weinfuss also says that Niklas is a long-term answer who will be a crucial blocker in the early going.

Louis Nix
Kiper gave the Texans an A-, saying that Nix is a steal at No. 83 if he is in decent shape and that Houston's defensive front is now extremely versatile. … ESPN.com Texans reporter Tania Ganguli says Nix could start early. … Ganguli also says Nix had a good attitude about his draft slide.

Best of the rest
ESPN.com' Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams says Chris Watt fills a need and could be an answer at right guard. … ESPN.com Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure writes that Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff stands behind Prince Shembo. … ESPN.com Giants reporter Dan Graziano says that Bennett Jackson is part of the franchise's character-driven plan. … ESPN.com Lions reporter Michael Rothstein says that T.J. Jones could end up being a surprise in the slot.
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
No Notre Dame players will be at Radio City Music Hall for this weekend's NFL draft. No matter. The event could end up being one of the biggest pro showcases the Irish have ever been a part of.

There is a chance, albeit an outside one, that Notre Dame could hear 12 of its former players' names called in New York. If that happens, it would mark the Irish's biggest draft haul in 64 years, since the program had 13 former players taken in the 1950 draft. Notre Dame's two biggest drafts came several years before that, as it had 16 former players taken in the 1946 draft and 15 taken one year before that, in 1945.

Let's not forget that Danny Spond was in position to play himself into a draft pick before retiring last summer, which would have swelled the Irish's potential picks this weekend to 13. (Note: This number does not include transfer Aaron Lynch, an early entrant from USF.) The fact that a dozen former Irish players have a chance to be drafted is an obvious testament to the strides made in the Brian Kelly era.

Of course, it can be argued that only three of the Irish's 12 draft hopefuls -- Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III -- were true Kelly recruits, but as our friend Scott Janssen over at uhnd.com recently noted, the Irish's draft success under Kelly is more than just a coincidence.
If Notre Dame’s ability to develop NFL talent is connected to its long-term success, one look at Notre Dame’s draft history since the last national championship in 1988 clearly highlights why the Fighting Irish have been largely mediocre during the years after Lou Holtz’s departure and before Kelly’s arrival.

Notre Dame’s ability to produce elite, first-round NFL talent has been nearly non-existent since Lou Holtz’s departure in 1997. Bob Davie and Charlie Weis each oversaw five different draft classes and were only able to produce one first round draft selection. Tyrone Willingham, who oversaw two fewer NFL draft classes while head coach at Notre Dame, managed to produce one first round draft choice in center Jeff Faine, making Willingham’s production of first round selections slightly better than that of either Weis or Davie.

At this stage of the spring, Zack Martin is a virtual lock to be taken in the first round. Louis Nix and Tuitt could be as well. All three getting drafted Thursday would give Kelly six first round picks at Notre Dame, doubled the combined total of Willingham, Weis and Davie.

Looks like the pots of gold could be getting a bit heavier for high schoolers thinking about the Irish.

Irish lunch links

May, 1, 2014
May 1
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Time to jump on the Rangers bandwagon, obviously.

Notre Dame spring wrap

April, 29, 2014
Apr 29
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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.
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."

Four former Notre Dame players are featured in Scouts Inc.'s Todd McShay's latest mock draft , which spans two rounds. Two of those former Fighting Irish stars are listed in the first round, with two more in the second.

Zack Martin continues to see his stock rise with the NFL draft less than a month away, as McShay slots the left tackle at No. 17 to the Baltimore Ravens, where McShay has him playing right tackle. Nose guard Louis Nix comes a dozen picks later, at No. 29 to the New England Patriots. McShay sees "Irish Chocolate" adding depth to the Patriots' front and says that Nix could prove to be a major steal this low if he returns to his pre-injury, 2012 form.

McShay has defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt falling to the Tennessee Titans at No. 42. And, in a mild surprise, the analyst has Troy Niklas getting picked 11 slots later at No. 53, citing the long-term potential of the man known in college as "Hercules."

This was the fourth version of McShay's mock. The draft takes place May 8-10.
Sixteen former Notre Dame players will take part in Thursday's NFL Pro Day at the Loftus Sports Center, the school announced Monday.

Though each's exact participation has yet to be determined, the names scheduled to be in attendance this week are George Atkinson III, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, Mike Golic Jr., Bennett Jackson, TJ Jones, Zack Martin, Troy Niklas, Louis Nix III, Tommy Rees, Kona Schwenke, Prince Shembo, Nick Tausch, Stephon Tuitt, Robby Toma and Chris Watt.

Golic and Toma both finished their Irish careers during the 2012 season.

One player from that list who won't be participating in any drills is Tuitt, who told ESPN.com in a text message that he already completed such drills during his Feb. 28 pro day at Lovett (Ga.) High. Tuitt had surgery earlier this month to repair a stress fracture in his left foot that was discovered during the NFL scouting combine.

Testing and position-specific drills Thursday start around 11:45 a.m. ET.

Notre Dame mailblog

March, 14, 2014
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Enjoy the weekend, gang. Any other questions or comments? Tweet 'em or drop 'em in the mailbag.

Dan Maine from Camp LeJeune, N.C., writes: Hey Matt, longtime reader and big time ND fan. Quick question, this year being the last ND vs. Michigan game is there anything special Notre Dame has planned for the game like Michigan did last year?

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame/Michigan
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsThe Irish and Wolverines will face off this season for the last time in the foreseeable future.
Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Dan. Are you referring to Devin Gardner being given the No. 98 legends jersey in honor of Tom Harmon? I'd imagine Notre Dame isn't doing anything like that, neat as that was. But I'm sure the atmosphere and intensity will be charged up just a bit for the last scheduled meeting between these two rivals -- under the lights, no less. (Maybe the Irish will have a retort to the "Chicken Dance" if they win? Or perhaps Troy Niklas can return for the pep rally, rip his shirt off and declare his love of pain, as he did the night before the Michigan game two years ago?)


Mike S. from Chicago writes: Hi Matt, great work as always! My question -- the 2014 schedule. Always a hot topic. One could make an argument that the Irish have only 3 "true" road games upcoming. But wouldn't they be just about the 3 toughest road games imaginable in the country? If not, certainly the toughest 3 road games in a 6-game stretch in the country I'd say. But, as a fan, I'm glad these games are happening in the second half of the season as opposed to the first. From both a ranking opportunity standpoint and from a "giving the team time to gel" standpoint. Agree?

Matt Fortuna: Forget about you, Mike; I'm just glad they're all in good weather! But yes, it's difficult to imagine a tougher game than a visit to Florida State, the likely preseason No. 1 team who may very well be undefeated come Oct. 27. Trips to USC and Arizona State won't be easy, either, though the potential difficulty of both of those games remains to be seen. More to your point, though, yes -- it is not impossible to imagine the Irish taking advantage of the timing and getting off to a 6-0 start. And if a young team can clear the first half of its schedule unscathed, well, it can start to believe anything, which would add a whole 'nother level of intrigue to that date in Tallahassee.


Matt from Pittsburgh writes: Hey Matt love your work covering ND, so I'm visiting ND for the first time for the blue/gold spring game on 4-12. What things would you recommend seeing doing while there? Thanks!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Matt. First and foremost I'd recommend checking out The Grotto, especially if you're with family. I took my mother there on her first visit and she nearly shed a tear. I'd also do a lot of walking around outside the stadium for tailgates and other extra curriculars before and even during the game, as it's the spring game and the game-like atmosphere is much more of the event than the actual game itself (though still considerably toned-down from the fall). Any other suggestions for Matt from Pittsburgh, gang? Drop 'em here and I'll pass them along.


Kurt Weidmann from Sacramento, Calif., writes: Matt, Thanks for your coverage of ND football! Nice work. Yes, as you mention in one of your recent articles, ND has been Tight End U., as of late, Niklas, Tyler Eifert, Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Anthony Fasano. But, you really REALLY need to give some love out to the ten year period at Tight End U., from 1974-1984, that included Ken MacAfee (College Football HOF, All-American, 3rd in Heisman voting), Dave Casper (All-American, All-Pro, both College and Pro HOF, Super Bowl Champion) and Mark Bavarro (All-American, All-Pro and Super Bowl Champ). Not bad eh! Thanks in advance!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Kurt. No kidding, though that was way before my time. Tough to find a way to include all of those guys in a short article, but something tells me that Ben Koyack does not need to extend his research all that far back to understand just how big the shoes he is filling are.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The first reaction, like that of most others, was a bit of shock. Then the personal ramifications set in for Ben Koyack.

[+] EnlargeBen Koyack
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesBen Koyack will get his chance as Notre Dame's tight end this fall.
Troy Niklas was gone a year earlier than expected, Tight End U. was in need of a new face and, well, who better to step up than a rising senior who saw his production jump down the stretch last season.

"Yeah, I'm the oldest guy in the group, and I'm a guy I feel that the younger guys respect," Koyack said when asked if he felt like a No. 1 tight end. "And that's something I feel like definitely makes me comfortable out there."

Notre Dame will turn to Koyack now to be the next-in-line at its position of strength, following Niklas, Tyler Eifert, Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Anthony Fasano. Of Koyack's 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns last season, all but a 19-yard scoring grab came during the Irish's final six games. The primary blocker in two-tight end sets knows he'll be asked to do more now, and he knows the example he sets this season can pay dividends beyond 2014.

"It just meant to me that I really need to step up," Koyack said. "It's no longer just, 'OK, I've got to be good for that role and just know what the No. 1 guy does.' I've got to be able to do it. I've got to be able to do it in my sleep. I've got to be able to show all the younger guys. I've got to be able to draw it up. It was more or less knowing that I have to accept all the responsibilities that could be thrown on me."

He has taken on a stronger leadership role, shooting text messages to redshirt freshman Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe and inviting them to his room to review plays. And while he says he's more focused on doing whatever is required of him in 2014, he is well aware of what he is stepping into: A lineage that, this May, could see a fifth straight Irish starting tight end taken in the NFL draft's first two rounds.

"You don't come here unless you want to do that," Koyack said of being a starter. "Coming here a freshman, every one wants to get out here and be that No. 1 guy, especially with the reputation like we have. That's pretty much the reason I came here, to have that role. It's something I do definitely look forward to."

Irish lunch links

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
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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
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THIS WINTER.

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