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Man of Troy

Jack Hefferon | Thursday, September 12, 2013

Have you heard the legend of Troy?

The Southern California giant with the light-brown surfer hair, who descended on the Midwest, changed sides of the ball and is fighting to continue the line of great Notre Dame tight ends?

Maybe not yet; the story certainly isn’t done. But the latest chapter in the career of junior tight end Troy Niklas – the one his teammates call Hercules – has been the continuation of an epic.

In Notre Dame’s home opener against Temple, Niklas caught a pass in the seam near the end of the first half. With only one man to beat – a defensive back nearly a foot smaller than him – Niklas planted a hard step to his left then cut around the safety, rumbling untouched for a 66-yard touchdown.

Then last week at the Big House, senior quarterback Tommy Rees rolled out on a play-action pass, finding Niklas about five yards short of the goal line. Niklas made the catch, then ran straight over Wolverines safety Jarrod Wilson for the score, keeping the Irish in the game.

That combination of speed and power – especially on Niklas’ 6-foot-7, 270 pound frame – presents a Herculean challenge for any defense.  

“He opens it up for all the receivers,” senior captain TJ Jones said. “Having that big threat down the middle … it adds a little bit more for defenses, because he has such an obvious size advantage on most of the players.”

The scary thing is, Niklas is still a work in progress. Recruited as a defensive lineman out of Servite High School in Anaheim, Calif., Niklas was playing outside linebacker two years ago. Now he is tied for the team lead in touchdowns and is averaging 70 yards a game.

That progress has pleased Irish coach Brian Kelly, who has watched Niklas develop into yet another versatile weapon in his offense.

“That’s what tight ends are born to do, and he’s starting to show that with consistent improvement,” Kelly said. “He’s still learning the game. Every day is a learning experience for him. I like his maturity. I like the way he’s growing as a football player.

“I think he has a great opportunity here to be one of those great tight ends at Notre Dame.”

That’s the type of heady praise Niklas and his huge potential have received this season. But to focus on this chapter is to skip the beginning of the tale.

Niklas has been the biggest kid on the field nearly as long as he’s been on one. When Troy was in sixth grade, they moved him up onto a team with eighth and ninth-graders to play running back. Niklas’ coach had the team run a sideline tackling drill, where any defender who couldn’t tackle him had to run laps – one lap for every year older than Troy they were.

Those kids ran a lot of laps.

“My mom wasn’t too happy about it,” Niklas said. “Because really, I was just on the sidelines running kids over all practice.”

Growing up, Niklas played basketball, baseball, soccer and, yes, young Hercules threw the discus as well. But Troy always gravitated toward football and starred for Servite on both the offensive and defensive line. When it came time to pick a school, Niklas seemed likely to stay local and go to USC but surprised college football when he chose Notre Dame on National Signing Day instead.

“In the end, this was the clear decision: to come to Notre Dame,” Niklas said. 

Once on campus as a freshman, Niklas impressed as an outside linebacker, playing in 12 games and notching 20 tackles. Niklas’ physique also earned the attention of his teammates, as then-junior linebacker Manti Te’o trotted out all kinds of nicknames for the new guy, from Thor to the Hulk. But eventually it was Hercules that stuck, a nickname that continued to grow with Niklas’s play.

“When he was on defense, he was a really nasty, aggressive player,” graduate student linebacker Dan Fox said. “And you can definitely see that in his blocking when he comes over on the offense. He was always doing his job, doing the right thing, really aggressive.”

But after making an impact as a freshman, Kelly and his staff decided to bring Niklas over to play tight end, a position he hadn’t played since his early days of high school. While still rough around the edges, Niklas played in all 13 games last season, even reeling in his first career touchdown against Boston College.

Most of what allowed Niklas to make the transition so quickly was his brute strength, which can be fairly objectively described as legendary just by looking at him. In the bench press, Troy maxes out at 450 pounds. Four hundred and fifty. Take your standard 45-pound barbell, then sit Rees on one side and Jones on the other. That’s 450 pounds.

That raw strength has allowed Niklas to challenge and lead the team in the weight room, work he believes is critical to improving the team.

“Everyone can benefit from weight training,” Niklas said. “There’s a direct correlation: If you see strength increases in the weight room, you’re going to see them on the field.”

That strength was on display last season, both on the field and when Niklas took the stage at the pep rally prior to the Michigan game. In front of the screaming crowd, Hercules ripped his shirt off, then began to philosophize in the ancient Greek tradition, providing wisdom like, “We are all organisms, fighting and striving to endure,” and “You’ve got to love the pain!” 

Niklas said he got some locker room ribbing for his exuberance on stage, but stood by his words.

(“Loving the pain? You’ve got to, in this industry.”)

Regardless of his feelings for the pain, Niklas knows how and when to keep things light in the Irish locker room. Whether cracking jokes, posing or putting on a British accent and belting out “Always Look on The Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Niklas hopes his presence helps the team persevere over the course of the season.

“It’s a difficult thing to do to get through a season, and it’s easy to get dragged down by all the weight on your shoulders,” he said. “I just try to stay positive and tell a funny joke or sing a funny hymn.”

But on the field, taking on Niklas is no laughing matter. His frame alone makes him a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, and his physical tools have made him nearly impossible to cover over the middle of the field – something no one knows better than the linebackers that face him in practice every day.

“He’s a physical threat,” Fox said. “He can catch the ball, he can block really well. He’s a really good player. And he’s just getting more reps. He’s in there more, so [he] gets better every time.”

Notre Dame has a proud tradition of elite tight ends, and Niklas had the chance to learn from the latest in that line, current Cincinnati Bengal Tyler Eifert, last season. 

“Last year, from game one to game 12, I progressed quite a bit, and I’ve tried to do the same through spring ball and the offseason,” he said. “It feels good, but I’ve still got a lot of work to go to be anywhere close to Tyler Eifert, Anthony Fasano or any of those other guys.

“It’s not perfect yet. But that’s where I’m trying to get.”

Two solid games as a junior certainly doesn’t put Niklas on Mount Olympus yet, but his progress thus far has the ability to make him the stuff of legend.

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu