Just don't tell that to Troy Niklas, he of the four touchdown receptions in six games this season, just two short of the program's all-time record at the position.
"The real difference I can feel is I can start doing things without thinking about it," said Niklas of his second season at the position after beginning his Irish career at linebacker. "Whether it's blocking or running my routes, I can just do it automatically now, which is nice. Everything is just smoother. The more I do it, the better I get."
Apparently, the 6'7" 260-pounder occasionally enjoys the route-running aspect of his craft a bit too much. His latest touchdown serves as a prime example.
"Well, actually I wasn't supposed to be out in a route, I just didn't hear the check," said Niklas of his most recent touchdown catch, a scramble situation by quarterback Tommy Rees vs. Arizona State. "So that's why he wasn't really looking for me, it wasn't his fault. Tommy and I made eye contact from far away, he threw it up and I was able to make a play on it."
Niklas and the Irish offense hope for similar fortuitous developments Saturday night vs. his home state USC Trojans.
"Playing a team where I'm from that I watched growing up is really fun. It adds that much more excitement for this week," said Niklas. "They're very athletic, they play hard. You could see that last week (a 38-31 win over Arizona in a game the Trojans led 28-3).
As for USC's fall from grace that concluded the ill-fated Lane Kiffin era, a 62-41 loss to Arizona State, Niklas offered, "You're not going into a game thinking that their defense will ever play the way they did that game. We see how they play when they play their best and kind of scheme off that."
Head coach Brian Kelly noted the biggest differences between Niklas this year and last is not only familiarity with the position, but the ability to make use of his physical gifts.
"Last year…understanding the position and the nuances was really new for him, and he's still learning as we go," said Kelly. "He picks up new things about the position each and every week. I think that's what we're seeing, the maturation of the young man that's learning how to play the tight end position. His size and athleticism and all those things are starting to show themselves. They don't show themselves when you're not sure how to use them."
LA vs. South BendIn early February 2011, Niklas had a decision to make: USC or Notre Dame? It took a trip to South Bend on January 30 (low temperature of 19 degrees, 7.9 inches of snow on the ground) to force Niklas's hand.
"The way it worked out, the Sunday before Signing Day was my visit here. I only had two days to really think about it," Niklas said. "Coming back from the visit I didn't know where I was going to go. I took a day to think about it with my dad and some family. In the end it was pretty clear and with pretty good reasons why."
NIklas admitted an intense 24 hour led up to his decision.
"Kind of a fork in the road you encounter in life," he said. "I just saw a really tight-knit community, really passionate coach, a top-notch education, and a team that can compete for a national championship. Although we didn't win, we made it there. I feel like Notre Dame had and has all of that."
Recruited as a defensive end by the Trojans, Niklas will instead attack the USC defense Saturday, though he fondly recalls a past encounter with one Trojans competitor, current backup quarterback and 2012 game starter, Max Wittek, a player whom he was reminded he once intercepted in a high school matchup between Niklas's school, Servite (Anaheim, Calif.), and Wittek's school Mater Dei (Santa Ana).
"I did, and ran it for a touchdown," said a beaming Niklas. "In front of 30,000 fans too, and it was on TV, and it was a big rival game. And oh, by the way," he added tongue-in-cheek, "we did win that game. But what do i know, right?"
"It was pretty awesome, everyone running around, it was electric," said Niklas of the atmosphere following his Pick Six. "The place lit up. It was awesome."