SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas is an intimidating figure at 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds and a physique so impressive former teammate Manti Te'o nicknamed him "Hercules."
Off the field, though, the mere mention of Niklas' name brings a smile to teammates' faces because of his offbeat character.
"He's definitely a goofball, but a great guy and obviously ridiculously talented on the field," offensive tackle Zack Martin said. "I've gotten pretty close to Troy over the last year or so and he's definitely the goofy guy on the team."
Martin said the moment that probably sums up Niklas' unorthodox personality occurred at the pep rally before the Michigan game last year when he took off his shirt and gave a ranting speech about how he and his teammates had learned "to love the pain."
"He's pretty out there and he's not afraid to do anything," Martin said, laughing. "He can make people feel pretty awkward."
Niklas, a junior from Fullerton, Calif., majoring in entrepreneurship embraces that reputation, saying he likes to keep things lively and hates boring, mundane tasks. That makes football practices tough at times, but Niklas said "verbal encouragement" from Irish coaches helps him stay on task.
Niklas showed another side of himself recently, leading a team effort to raise $4,600 for the South Bend Center for the Homeless and helping to organize a dinner where 70 Notre Dame players sat down to eat with people at the shelter.
"It was not out of character as much as it was the side we hadn't seen of him," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "As he's matures, he's felt more comfortable being Troy Niklas. That maturity comes out as he becomes more confident in himself and not letting his guard down and not being that quirky, zany kind of guy we saw just last year taking his shirt off at the pep rally. There's a little bit more to Troy Niklas than that."
Niklas said it was a continuation of work he had done at Servite High School where students gathered essentials and gave them out to the homeless. He said working with homeless people is inspiring.
"Sometimes you don't know how much you have until you see someone who doesn't have anything," Niklas said. "Being here at Notre Dame we're so blessed athletically, intellectually, opportunity-wise, just to be in a community that's loving and caring. A lot of people don't have that."
Later that week, Niklas was Notre Dame's leading receiver against Southern California with four catches for 58 yards, including a 7-yard TD catch in the 14-10 win. He's third on the team in catches this season with 22 for 372 yards and is averaging 16.9 yards a reception, which heading into Saturday's game at Pittsburgh (4-4) is higher than the two leading wide receivers for Notre Dame (7-2).
Niklas arrived at Notre Dame wanting to be a tight end, but Irish coaches started him at outside linebacker. He even started one game as a freshman, making three tackles against Michigan State. But last season he switched over to tight end and finished with five catches as he was used primarily as a blocker.
Kelly rated Niklas as OK last season as a receiver and blocker, saying he wasn't yet living up to his potential. Niklas is coming closer to meeting that potential this season. He's coming off his best game blocking against Navy, when he also had a key 28-yard catch on third-and-8 on the game-winning touchdown drive.
"I don't think there is a bigger play in the game," Kelly said.
Notre Dame has a history of producing standout tight ends such as Dave Casper, Ken MacAfee in the 1970s, Tony Hunter and Mark Bavaro in the 1980s and more recently Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert. Niklas feels the pressure of following in their footsteps, but also understands the opportunity.
"It gives you a push to be that next great tight end knowing that your name could be talked about with them," he said.
Niklas isn't putting up the volume of catches of some of his predecessors, but he is a touchdown shy of matching MacAfee's school record of six TD catches in a season. He also has seven catches of 20 or more yards this season, including a 66-yard touchdown against Temple.
Niklas said he's still learning the position and working on getting better at a lot of the little things in both receiving and blocking.
"I think I'm good right now, but I think there's another level I can reach," he said.