Word leaked out of South Bend Tuesday night that upcoming sophomore defender Troy Niklas has been working out with the tight ends during the winter in anticipation for a move to that position in 2012.
The news has sent a tiny shockwave through the Notre Dame fan base as they scramble to understand just what a move like this means for the future.
It shouldn't have come as a complete surprise since Niklas is the very definition of an athlete at the collegiate level. When people thought he'd play outside drop linebacker, defensive end, defensive tackle, tight end, or offensive tackle it shouldn't shock anyone that he's moving positions so early in his career.
So if Niklas indeed is moving to tight end next year, what are the implications for the rest of the team on both sides of the ball?
Hybrid Defense is Going to be More Prevalent?
With Niklas moving out of the ranks of OLB/DE/DT this probably means we'll see a lot of 4-man fronts consisting of Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE), Stephon Tuitt (DT), Louis Nix (DT), and Aaron Lynch (DE).
Yes, we'll still see plenty of traditional 3-4 looks with one of those players replaced with a Cat linebacker, but you can bet these four will eat a majority of the minutes up front on the line.
With those studs up front, it gives the coaches a lot of flexibility and will possibly allow Cat linebackers Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams a little more time to learn their positions instead of being thrust immediately into starters' minutes from game one.
It also likely means that the staff is plenty happy with what they know they'll be able to get out of Shembo and Williams---and remember Diaco and others were very adamant about getting Ishaq on the field more this upcoming season.
What About the Dog Position?
The defensive front and Cat linebacker aren't affected as much by the move by Niklas, as the talent and depth up front is as good as it's been in 10 years or more.
But what about the other outside linebacker spot where Niklas got most of his playing time as a freshman?
First, remember Niklas started playing minutes at Dog because Danny Spond was injured and Prince Shembo was struggling at the position while also missing some time dealing with his father's sickness. It's not as if Niklas played a ton or leapfrogged two older players and now a new starter needs to be replaced.
Still, the Dog position is a question mark moving forward, has been for three years now, and has probably been the least productive position on the whole team since Kelly took over. Moving Niklas away from that spot---when Kelly raved about his play in space---doesn't make a whole lot of sense in that regard.
Of course this could also mean that Niklas was never destined to stay at Dog in the first place, that he was just filling last year due to a lack of depth, and the coaching staff is likely very comfortable with Danny Spond playing minutes, using Jamoris Slaughter in a hybrid role, and the ascension of redshirt freshman Ben Councell.
Niklas as a Tight End
On the surface, it seems puzzling to move Niklas to tight end with Tyler Eifert coming back and two talented youngsters backing him up---each with three more years of eligibility left.
Yet if we take Jake Golic out of the equation, is three tight ends still enough?
It wasn't last year as Mike Ragone went down with a season ending injury, Alex Welch missed most of the season with two separate injuries, and true freshman Ben Koyack was thrust into playing early and often.
In today's day and age, with the way the game is played, isn't it a good idea to have a lot of capable pass-catching tight ends? And while Notre Dame has three decent blockers at tight end, Niklas immediately boosts this part of the position and is likely the best blocker of the bunch.
Some believe Niklas will eventually grow into an offensive tackle, but I don't see that happening. He is far too muscular---a large and wiry build---to add the mass necessary to play there. I have a hard time seeing him putting on 50 extra pounds when he's already cut and doesn't have that flabby body that can be built into a tackle.
In my estimation, Niklas will always stay under 270 pounds and that means he was likely destined for a long-term future at defensive end or tight end.
It appears the coaching staff has chosen the latter position.
What's This Say About Recruiting?
Notre Dame passed on a tight end for 2011 largely because Tyler Eifert was coming back, the scholarship numbers were tight, and the class had a handful of recruits take it to the limit but who ended up signing elsewhere.
Does moving Niklas to tight end signal some struggles in recruiting this position for 2013?
With the success Notre Dame has had at the tight end position for the past decade it's hard to believe that the Irish are struggling to recruit this year.
Although the current prospects for picking up a couple big time tight ends in the 2013 don't look wonderful, Niklas' move probably has nothing to do with it.
In fact, if Niklas plays well enough it would serve as another indicator that Kelly is willing to use all the tight ends at his disposal. Certainly that would help out on the recruiting trail.
Changes to the Offense
The apparent move of Niklas to tight end presents some interesting scenarios to ponder:
1) Niklas is used a lot as a blocker
It has gone mostly unnoticed through two years, but when the tight end corps has been healthy, Brian Kelly has not been shy about using two-tight end sets. Moving Niklas over to offense just makes this a lot easier for him to do, and will allow Ben Koyack the opportunity to focus on his pass catching skills instead of being the primary blocker on the line while Eifert is out catching 8 balls a game.
2) Eifert can be split out wide more often
The fact that John Goodman was needed to come back for a fifth year means that Notre Dame currently has very little proven options at the outside receiver position. Among the receiving corps, there is a definite lack of experienced size.
Moving Niklas to tight end will likely allow Eifert many more opportunities to be split out wide, even go to the outside where he spent some snaps last year, and help bring much needed size and skill to the receiving game.
3) This is yet another sign that the team is moving to a more run-oriented offense
Perhaps Niklas becomes an excellent receiving tight end and Kelly is planning on building a new offense around the position similar to the New England Patriots or Stanford Cardinal.
However, he's likely being moved over because he's too athletic to not see the field, and he'll be another body that will help transition the team toward supporting a running quarterback and an offense built more on getting Riddick/Atkinson/Neal the ball in space, and utilizing much more play-action.
Niklas will also be a major help in the redzone with his blocking and tall frame and his speed and quickness is probably more suited to the proactive position of tight end and not the reactive positions on defense.
He'll also be able to bring some flexibility and tough blocking to an H-back role that Kelly has shown he likes to use from time to time, but hasn't had the bodies to pull it off on a regular basis. If Niklas isn't that guy (can you imagine a 6'7" H-back!?!?) maybe the shorter and smaller Alex Welch can grow into that role?
What do you think about moving Hercules to offense?