When it was revealed that Notre Dame asked for an NFL draft evaluation for Troy Niklas, the junior tight end seemed almost as surprised as anyone else, not quite processing what it might mean nor giving it much weight at all.
"I'm pretty sure I'm coming back," Niklas said on Dec. 21.
He's not, after all. Niklas will bypass his senior season and enter the NFL draft, the player and his father, Don, first told SI.com on Thursday night.
Niklas received a second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory board after a junior season in which he blossomed as an every-down tight end, catching 32 passes for 498 yards and five touchdowns. At 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, Niklas is a specimen nicknamed "Hercules" by teammates, though no one was expecting him to make the leap.
"He thought he was physically developed enough to make it happen," Don Niklas told SI.com in a phone interview. "He's currently working out with a guy who's probably going to go in the top 5 of the Draft. And in his functional movement testing, he and that guy came out with the same score. He just felt like it was time to make the move. There are as many as 24 teams that are looking to pick up tight ends this year.
"He's got a unique ability to block as well as catch the ball. And a lot of the guys who are in the draft are more pass-catchers than they are blockers. In the NFL scheme, a lot of teams are going to two tight end sets and you have to have a guy who's a very good blocker, number one. And number two, he's got very soft hands. He can go up there and catch the ball."
In a statement first released to SI.com, Troy Niklas indicated it wasn't a knee-jerk process that led to the decision. His father likened it to choosing between Notre Dame and USC out of high school, in which the family had five different categories of factors they considered.
"I have made the very difficult decision to pursue my childhood dream and will enter the 2014 NFL Draft," Troy Niklas said. "I have thoroughly enjoyed my Notre Dame experience and want to thank the University, coach (Brian) 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."
Longevity factored into the decision, Don Niklas said. As did the notion that a second NFL contract is where a player makes his money anyway -- and being drafted in the second or even third round just means one less option year a franchise holds over a player before he gets to that next deal.
And the late-season development of Ben Koyack enabled Niklas to leave with a clear conscience, his father said.
"One of the things that was real important to him, he wanted to make sure he wouldn't leave Notre Dame in the lurch," Don Niklas said. "Knowing Ben Koyack was coming back, that was taken into consideration in the process. He doesn't want to leave his alma mater high and dry. Ben is primed to take that spot. You've got (sophomore-to-be) Mike Heuerman, that kid is a strong kid, a good kid, that kid knows what he's doing... Troy feels knowing these guys are in the works, and the level of their talent, that Notre Dame would still be left in a good spot."
How good remains to be seen, given that the Irish now lost a linchpin defender (defensive end Stephon Tuitt), receiver (Niklas) and regular backfield contributor (George Atkinson III) all to early-exit decisions for the draft. When also considering that the Irish must replace coordinators on both sides of the ball and deal with the absence of leading returning receiver DaVaris Daniels for the spring semester due to academic issues, it seems much more like another offseason teeming with problems instead of progress for Notre Dame.