In retrospect, Troy Niklas' hesitancy to answer an innocuous question in front of a large media contingent, coupled with a more revealing response minutes later, was likely the only indicator needed.
Asked post-game in the wake of Notre Dame's 29-16 victory over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl if there was "a decision to be made" regarding his NFL future, Niklas, a true junior and 2013 Mackey Award finalist only offered, "Uh, I'm not going to talk about that right now. If it's alright."
Niklas later offered to a much smaller number of reporters that he had received a grade of "second to fourth round" from the NFL Draft advisory and that head coach Brian Kelly explained to him that there was thus no decision to be made, as Kelly and the Irish staff believed he had future first round potential.
Niklas chose instead to pursue his future career path.
"I have made the very difficult decision to pursue my childhood dream and will enter the 2014 NFL Draft," said Niklas in a statement as first reported by SI.com. "I have thoroughly enjoyed my Notre Dame experience and want to thank the University, Coach 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. Go Irish."
Niklas is the third Irish junior to declare for the draft over the last four days joining projected first round pick Stephon Tuitt and projected undrafted free agent George Atkinson. Atkinson was suspended for the aforementioned Pinstripe Bowl for a violation of team rules.
Join our Football Forum Discussion Thread
Prior to the trio's departure, the Notre Dame program had previously lost just nine true juniors to early NFL entry dating back to Raghib "Rocket" Ismail's departure following the 1990 season in which he was the Heisman Trophy runner-up.
Twice before the program lost two players in the same draft cycle, first in 1993 when fullback Jerome Bettis and cornerback Tommie Carter were both selected in the first round, then following the 2009 season and coinciding with a coaching change from Charlie Weis to Kelly when Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate both made the jump, becoming second round selections.
Tuitt and Niklas were unquestioned starters for the forthcoming season while sources close to Irisheyes.com indicated Atkinson had lost his technical role as the listed starter (he started four games in 2013 but none since October 26) to classmate Cam McDaniel and notably the sophomore pair of Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.
Cornerback Bobby Taylor (second round 1995), Darius Walker (undrafted FA 2008), and Kyle Rudolph (second round 2010) fill out Notre Dame's early departure list.
Notre Dame returns three tight ends for 2014 including Niklas' classmate Ben Koyack, Scout.com's No. 1 ranked prospect at the position in the 2011 cycle. Koyack (3) and Niklas (5) combined to score eight touchdowns for the Irish last fall. The total is tied for the second-most in program history by the tight end position.
|Notre Dame's Ben Koyack scores his first career touchdown in the second quarter against Arizona State, October 5, 2013.|
|(Khampha Bouaphanh/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)|
Sophomores Durham Smythe (No. 6) and Mike Heuerman (No. 9) also return after being withheld from action as true freshmen last season.
Heuerman had his practice season truncated due to shoulder surgery.
Kelly currently has two tight ends pledged for the 2014 cycle, Nic Weishar (Marist HS, Chicago), and Tyler Luatua (La Mirada HS, La Mirada, Calif.). They rank 13th and 15th respectively at the position per Scout.com
Note: For more on Notre Dame's early departures and the talent on hand to assuage the impact of their defections, click the links below:
Tuitt's departure the latest blow to D-Line
Atkinson Exits Early