University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish
#85 (Offense) #58 (Defense)
Servite High School
It seems that the Irish continue to find the "pot ‘o gold" at the end of the recruiting rainbow, at least when it comes to unearthing elite tight end prospects. The latest "find" wearing a Notre Dame uniform is the team's "accidental" tight end, as Niklas was recruited as a defensive end.
Niklas shifted to outside linebacker for the 2011 season and then shuttled to the offensive side of the ball, starting seven games in a double-tight end formation alongside Mackey Award recipient (nation's top linebacker) Tyler Eifert. When the 2012 All-American left the university to apply for the 2013 draft, Niklas seamlessly took over the featured role during his junior campaign.
The tight end position has undergone quite a few changes since first being incorporated into the offensive game plan by the New York Giants with Joe Walton in the 1950s. It became a featured position with the emergence of Mike Ditka during his playing days with Chicago in the 1960s and John Mackey with the old Baltimore Colts. Thanks to the ingenious game planning by the New England Patriots, seeing multiple players at this position on the field at the same time has become the norm throughout the league.
Ever since the National Football League merged with the old American Football League in 1968, Notre Dame has become a "tight end factory" for professional teams. Since the two leagues combined, there have been 23 Notre Dame tight ends to play in the league. The university has seen 18 players at that position be drafted over the years, and just one Tom Fine (16th round choice by Buffalo in 1975) fail to appear in an NFL game.
For Notre Dame, the long list of standouts to make an impact in the NFL at this position began with Dave Casper, a second-round choice by the Oakland Raiders in 1974, who made regular visits to the Pro Bowl during his 11-year career. He was later followed by Ken MacAfee, who was taken in the first round by San Francisco in 1978. The most recognized of all the Notre Dame tight ends came to the league when Bill Parcells wisely chose Mark Bavaro in the fourth round of the 1985 draft.
Over the years, other Notre Dame tight ends to be selected in the early stages of the draft were Derek Brown (first round in 1992 by the Giants), John Carlson (second round by Seattle in 2008), Anthony Fasano (second round by Dallas in 2006), Tony Hunter (first round by Buffalo in 1983), Kyle Rudolph (second round by Minnesota in 2011) and Irv Smith (first round by New Orleans in 1993).
Monty Stickles preceded all of them when he was chosen by San Francisco in the first round of the 1960 draft, but was converted to that position after playing as a flanker for the Irish. Notre Dame saw another of their tight ends be the first to be selected at his position in 2013 — Tyler Eifert, the 2012 Mackey Award recipient, an honor bestowed annually on the best tight end in college football, who was chosen by the Cincinnati Bengals with the 21st selection.
Despite just two seasons at the tight end position, Niklas is regarded as the best blocker in the 2014 draft class at his position. He has shown to possess the quickness to work the seam and make defenses pay for biting on play action. He is a physical runner who can be a threat to break it open after the catch and while he is not going to make many defenders miss, he does have the power to defeat arm tackles and has a knack for exploiting seams.
Niklas is a very willing blocker and when it comes to making the clutch catch in traffic, he does not hesitate going over the middle. He is quite effective at turning and looking to throw blocks downfield when teammate makes a catch. He displays a wide base and gets strong hand placement as a blocker and can wash defenders down the line of scrimmage, along with being athletic enough to seal the edge, doing a nice job of rolling his hips.
His in-line power base is similar to that of an offensive lineman's and it is very rare to see him struggle to drive defenders off the ball. Moving into the second level, he has a good concept for taking angles. He also shows good awareness and positioning when asked to slide out and sustain in pass protection.
Before he joined the Notre Dame program, Niklas was named the Los Angeles Times Lineman of the Year as senior in 2010. The two-way standout as both an offensive and defensive lineman at Servite High School, he competed as an offensive guard and defensive tackle, helping the team compile a 14-1 record in 2010, their second straight CIF Southern Section Pac-5 Division title and runner-up in state playoffs. He was also named co-Lineman of the Year in the Trinity League by the Orange County Register.
Niklas was named as an offensive lineman on the Los Angeles Times high school all-star football team for 2010, along with garnering first-team all-state recognition on offense from CalHiSports. He was rated 11th by Super Prep among all prospects in the California, Nevada and Hawaii regions. On defense, he received All-CIF Southern Section Pac-5 honors from the Orange County Register and was a first-team all-county team, along with being a two-time first-team all-Trinity League selection.
Previously, as a sophomore, Niklas led the team to the Trinity League title and, as a junior, he helped Servite to the 2009 California state title (33-20 victory over Rocklin in Division II championship), in addition to the Pac-5 and Trinity League crowns. That season, as a tight end, he caught 16 passes as tight end for 128 yards and three touchdowns.
Playing football seems to be a "right of passage" for Niklas and his relatives. Troy's brother, Austin, was senior linebacker at Air Force in 2012, making 128 tackles to lead team and earning honorable mention All-Mountain West Conference honors. It is his connection to the Matthews family that also stands out.
Troy's uncle is Bruce Matthews, who was an All-American offensive lineman, selected in the first round of the 1983 draft, taken with the ninth pick by the Houston Oilers. Bruce spent his entire 19-year career with the same team, moving with the Oilers to Tennessee, where he would later serve as an assistant coach. He was a 14-time Pro Bowl selection, the most in NFL history, a record shared with Merlin Olsen.
Bruce's son, Jake Matthews, is a two-time All-American offensive tackle at Texas A&M and is expected to be an early first round selection in the 2014 NFL Draft. Jake's oldest brother, Kevin, was also an offensive lineman for Texas A&M. He was not drafted coming out of college in 2010, but suited up for both Tennessee and Washington the last three seasons. Back on the Aggies' campus is Kevin and Jake's younger brother, Mike, a sophomore who started on the same line as Jake at center last season.
Nicknamed "Hercules" because of his physique, the incoming freshman saw immediate action upon enrolling at Notre Dame, but not at the position he was recruited to play — defensive end. He appeared in 12 games as an outside linebacker, producing 20 tackles while assisting on a stop behind the line of scrimmage. He also recovered a fumble and both of his QB pressures resulted in interceptions.
During 2012 spring practice, head coach Brian Kelly approached the reserve outside linebacker about moving to offense. As long as he would get more opportunities to be on the field, the former defender was all for the change in positions.
‘‘I was on defense [as a freshman in 2011]; you get yelled at like a freshman,'' Niklas said. ‘‘And then you switch over, it was like learning a new language. You're like a freshman again.'' Utilized mostly as a blocker in 2012, he started seven games, but had just five receptions for 75 yards and a touch-down at the conclusion of the 13-game schedule.
Niklas looked at 2012 almost as a second freshman year. With the move to offense came the challenges associated with going from one side of the ball to the other. With the 2013 season approaching Niklas was preparing for a new test, helping the Irish move forward without Tyler Eifert. ‘‘I was real excited coming into camp just knowing there's a big hole to fill and that I can potentially fill it,'' Niklas said, ‘‘or at least fill part of it.''
‘‘You have to be skilled in the pass game and catch the football,'' Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. ‘‘And you have to be really, not dominating but a really accomplished in-line blocker. I'd say in both of those areas, [Niklas] was okay last year. In other words, his size and physical frame were up here, and his accomplishments were here. I want to see his accomplishments meet his size and stature.''
By the end of the 2013 season, Kelly would see great signs of improvement from his tight end project. A Mackey Award semifinalist as a junior, Niklas was one of just four Notre Dame offensive players to start every game in 2013. He pulled in 32 passes for 498 yards (15.56 ypc) and five touchdowns. He received weekly honorable mention from College Football Performance Awards after the Temple, Michigan and Southern California contests. He recorded 24 first downs, converting six third-down throws and had 18 catches for at least 10 yards, including 10 for 20 yards or longer.
On January 9th, 2014, Niklas announced his intentions to forego his remaining eligibility and enter the 2014 NFL Draft. "I have made the very difficult decision to pursue my childhood dream and will enter the 2014 NFL Draft," Niklas said in a statement. "I have thoroughly enjoyed my Notre Dame experience and want to thank the University, Coach Kelly, my teammates, the football staff, administration, and my teachers, as well as all of my friends and the entire Notre Dame community for providing this Southern California native with the experience of a lifetime. While I will miss being part of the team next year, I will always be part of the Notre Dame family and look forward to returning to earn my degree from the greatest university in the country. Go Irish."
The Mackey Award semifinalist earned All-American Super Sleeper Team honors from The NFL Draft Report and was an FBS All-Independent first-team pick…One of four offensive players to start every game for the Irish, Niklas finished third on the team with a career-high 32 receptions for 498 yards (15.56 ypc) and five touchdowns, grabbing 61.54% of the 52 passes targeted to him.