SOUTH BEND - It doesn’t seem plausible that someone 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds and who once capsized a blocking sled twice on camera in practice would slip into the category of media/fan afterthought.
But that’s where Notre Dame junior tight end Troy Niklas finds himself a little over a week into August football training camp, perceptually. In reality, he may be ND’s biggest wild card, literally and figuratively.
Perhaps his still-high ceiling is obscured because his freakish skill set, the kind that moves the needle in, say, an NFL Combine setting, didn’t translate into overwhelming, or even mere whelming, football production last season.
He finished the 2012 season with a modest five receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown, and fluctuated between bruising run-blocker and struggling pass-blocker.
“You have to be skilled in the pass game and catch the football. And you have to be — not dominating — but a really accomplished in-line blocker,” Irish fourth-year head coach Brian Kelly said Monday after practice. “Now I’d say in both those areas, he was OK last year. In other words, his size and physical frame were up here and his accomplishments were (down) here.
“I want to see his accomplishments meet his size and stature. And I think they’re getting there.”
Former All-America tight end Tyler Eifert’s departure to the NFL with a year of college eligibility still on the table, creates an opening for Niklas and fellow veteran tight ends Alex Welch (missed 2012 season with knee injury) and Ben Koyack (three receptions, 39 yards) to make more of a statement statistically in 2013.
Eifert, in three seasons of playing, leaves ND as its career leader by a tight end in receptions (140) and receiving yards (1,840) and unofficial leader in being clutch. Of the 50 catches he amassed last season, 36 of them went for first downs and/or touchdowns.
“We’re told not to say we’re going to fill someone’s shoes,” Niklas said when pushed that direction, “but I think as an offense as a whole, we’re going to end up filling (Eifert’s) shoes. Me, personally, I don’t think I’m going to end up doing what he does.”
They were complementary pieces with different strengths. Eifert was the new-wave tight end who could flex out away from the offensive line and create mismatches all over the field. Niklas is a more traditional tight end, but can be dangerous, overpowering defenders in the red zone and making defenses defend the middle of the field.
“Just the other day in the red zone, he used his body and his size, and he complemented it with his pass-catching, using his body to box out,” Kelly said. “He didn’t have that feel last year. So we’re seeing an improvement in this big, young man at the tight end position every day, and it’s pretty exciting.”
Niklas actually watches film of traditional tight ends to help with his improvement — not Eifert, though he learned a lot from the Cincinnati Bengals rookie about how to approach the game.
“Just technique, how to attack his day. He’s just a freak,” Niklas said. “He’s just really impressive. To look at him as a mentor for me is awesome, because now I know how it’s done.
“Every day he’s just locked into meetings. Every route he runs, every play he’s in, you know that he’s in there for a purpose.”
For Niklas the purpose this summer was to shore up the little details that added up to bigger mistakes last season, the most challenging of which was how to consistently pass block.
“One of the hard things is just getting a good base,” he said. “Last year I just never felt I could get a good base, get in a good solid position with my legs. Maybe it was the weight room and just working on it every day, but I really feel that when I set back, even when I’m setting back quick, that I can stop on a dime and have a good base. And I can deliver a solid punch without being off-balance.”
Niklas came to Notre Dame from Anaheim (Calif.) Servite High, hoping to play tight end after playing out of position at offensive guard and defensive tackle his senior year, out of necessity.
Instead, he ended up as an outside linebacker. But a glut of young talent at that position, coupled with what Kelly thought was a more agreeable skill set on offense, prompted the move after Niklas’ freshman season.
“I always like a challenge,” Niklas said. “That’s what I came here for. So I enjoyed (defense), but the thing that’s really interesting is that I’ve really had two freshman years, because I was on defense.
“You just get yelled at like a freshman, and then you switch over and it’s like learning a new language, and you’re like a freshman again. That was kind of frustrating.”
Now he’s taking his frustrations out on the defense.
“Some people my age developed a little bit earlier, and they’ve had more time to figure out their body,” Niklas said. “I’m still kind of trying to figure it out, but I’m making strides every day.”
Kelly confirmed Monday the details that Nicky Baratti’s father’s Facebook page leaked over the weekend — that the sophomore safety suffered an injury to the same shoulder that kept him out of contact last spring and is now out for the 2013 season.
“He dislocated his shoulder in practice on Saturday, and he’ll need surgery to repair it,” Kelly said of the Tomball, Texas, product who was trying to overtake sophomore Elijah Shumate for a starting spot at safety.
“Very disappointed for Nick,” Kelly said. “He’s worked so hard to get back, but we’ll expect the next man in to step up and get it done there.”
A new name entered that derby on Monday — sophomore John Turner, a 6-1, 212-pounder from Indianapolis who did not see the field last season and was buried on the depth chart last spring.
Another late riser, junior Eilar Hardy, along with senior Austin Collinsworth and true freshman Max Redfield, are all in the pool of players challenging Shumate and at least looking to land in the two-deeps. The 6-foot, 201-pound Hardy, like Turner, hasn’t played a down, either, at ND.
“The old coaching cliché (is), ‘It’s not our job to notice you; it’s your job to make us notice you.’ ” Kelly said. “We have now noticed Hardy and John Turner.”
Redfield, though, if he can grasp the mental side of things, may still be the most noticed in the group chasing Shumate by the time the Irish open with Temple on Aug. 31.
Notre Dame running backs coach Tony Alford left the team indefinitely on Monday, with Kelly’s blessing, after learning that Alford’s younger brother, Aaron, died that morning of an apparent heart attack. He was 39.
“Today was just about getting (Tony Alford) on a plane,” an ND spokesman said.
Aaron was a former college assistant coach, most recently at the University of Utah. The two brothers, in fact, faced each other twice in the past several years — in 2010 when Utah played at Notre Dame and in 2007 when Tony was coaching at Louisville and the Cards hosted the Utes that season.
Their father, Robert Alford Sr., died of cancer in June of 2010. The brothers had a ritual of talking on the phone every Friday at 8 a.m. after their father passed.
Aaron recently had given up college coaching to be closer to his family. At the time of his passing, he was an assistant football coach and athletic director at Park City (Utah) High and served as the executive director at New Beginnings Behavioral Treatment Agency, which focuses on troubled youth.
Alford had three children, including a son (Eli) who is on the Park City football team.
Three Irish players appear on NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt’s top 100 seniors in college football for 2013.
ND’s two most celebrated players, nose guard Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, did not make the list, because Tuitt is a junior and Nix is a junior from an eligibility standpoint, since he could (but won’t) return to play for the Irish in 2014.
Making the list for ND are offensive tackle Zack Martin at No. 26, offensive guard Chris Watt at 38 and cornerback Bennett Jackson at 88.
Ten players who will oppose the Irish this year made the top 43, led by Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan at No. 2 and Stanford outside linebacker Trent Murphy at No. 5.
Nos. 1 and 3 both have ties to the Irish. Top-ranked Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews is the cousin of ND tight end Troy Niklas. UCLA outside linebacker Anthony Barr (No. 3) is the son of former Irish running back Tony Brooks and the nephew of former ND All-American Reggie Brooks.
A sprained foot will keep former Notre Dame All-America linebacker Manti Te’o from playing for the San Diego Chargers Thursday night in the team’s exhibition game in Chicago, but he will at least travel with the team.
“Even though I’m physically not doing anything, I’m getting my mental reps,” Te’o was quoted on the Chargers’ team website. “(I’m) standing behind the end zone, behind the defense and getting my keys, going through what I’d be going through if I was in practice so that I don’t lose a step. So that’s what I’m focusing on right now.
“Anytime I don’t get to play it’s very disappointing, especially playing in Chicago. I have a lot of people there with Notre Dame being right there. So it’s definitely something I was looking forward to but, thankfully, coach (Mike) McCoy is allowing me to go, so I’ll still be there. I just won’t be able to play.”
• A strong summer and first week of training camp for senior Lo Wood, who missed all of last season with an Achilles tendon injury, hasn’t altered the cornerback depth chart.
Kelly confirmed sophomore KeiVarae Russell remains the starter opposite of senior Bennett Jackson.
“He was a first-time player at that position last year. He knows the position very well,” Kelly said of the converted running back. “His technique has improved immensely. He’s stronger physically. A lot more confidence — all those things that come with being a returning starter.”
•He is far from a magazine cover boy, but you wouldn’t know if from listening to Kelly talk about him.
That is sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day, the new starter in a group that includes preseason defensive line All-Americans Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.
“His first-step quickness; he’s an impressive football player,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t trade him for anybody on our football team right now. He is as impressive of a player as we have on defense.
“Right now, if there’s an eight-play drive, he does not come out of the game. He’s the one that does not come out of the game. His work volume, his ability to go. His pass-rush ability. He’s an outstanding football player.”
•In its college football preview, ESPN the Magazine quizzed 92 college football players, on the condition of anonymity, an various topics.
Among them, which coach would be the last you’d ever want to play for? Two coaches who pop up on ND’s schedule this season topped that list — 1. Todd Graham of Arizona State, followed by Lane Kiffin of USC.
Among other results, 49 percent of the players thought they had at least one teammate using performance-enhancing drugs; a four-team playoff tied with a 32-team version at 9 percent as the least desirable number of teams to include (given the options of 4, 8. 16 and 32); and 74 percent of the players believed a player should have to be three years removed from high school in order to enter the NFL Draft.