In Good Hands

Rudolph played the role of early-season hero

IrishEyes continues its spring preview with a look at the team's five scholarship tight ends as well as a quick review of incoming freshman Alex Welch, who'll join the squad in August.

With the start of spring practice approximately one month away, IrishEyes continues its preview of each player and the team's 11 key position groups. Today's edition: the tight ends.

The Pecking Order – Tight Ends

The Irish return three letter-winners: junior Kyle Rudolph (2 seasons of eligibility remaining); senior Mike Ragone (two); and senior Bobby Burger (final season). Sophomore Tyler Eifert played early last season but can apply for a medical redshirt following his senior season of 2012. Eifert's classmate, sophomore-to-be Jake Golic, was withheld from action last year and has four seasons of eligibility remaining.

2009 Playing Time: :

  • Rudolph 275:59 with 57 special teams appearances
  • Ragone 158:45 with 101 special teams appearances
  • Burger: 53:36 with 83 special teams appearances
  • Eifert: 3:16 with no special teams appearances

Middle Man – Kyle Rudolph

The playmaking tight end was well on his way to a top three finish for the nation's Mackey Award before a shoulder injury (and team fall from grace) truncated his impressive sophomore season.

Rudolph's penchant for the clutch catch and presence as a downfield target placed him among a all-star second tier of all-time Irish greats at the position (with Dave Casper and Ken McAfee still perched at the top)…and he has two years remaining to join the top dogs.

A potential pre-season 1st Team All America choice, Rudolph had surgery on his injured shoulder in late December and is expected to be ready for spring practice. The junior-to-be from Cincinnati finished third on the team in receptions (33) receiving yards (334) and TD receptions (3) despite playing just 8.5 games with two healthy shoulders.

We Have Questions: Already proven as a detached (offset from the line of scrimmage and away/detached from an offensive tackle teammate) receiver, will Rudolph continue to split wide in head coach Brian Kelly's offense? After showing improvement over a shaky freshman season, can Rudolph take the next step as an inline blocker as a third-year player? Will another receiver emerge to afford Rudolph the luxury of facing linebackers or strong safeties in one-on-one coverage down the seams?

Hope Springs Eternal: Aside from the aforementioned inconsistency as a blocker, Rudolph has few deficiencies for a player entering his third season. He runs well after the catch; began to emerge as the ultimate red zone target by early October; and is one of two remaining Irish receivers in which the offensive staff and quarterbacks can count on to make the clutch catch, the catch in traffic, and the hard-nosed grab while a defender closes in for the big hit.

Injury is the only element of the game that stands between Rudolph collegiate stardom, as complacency will not be an issue for the dedicated tight end.

Spring Prediction: Rudolph will emerge as a team leader and the offense's second-best all around player.

Stretching the Seam – Mike Ragone

The star-crossed senior has two years of eligibility remaining after sitting out the 2008 season with a torn ACL (Ragone's second in three years of football dating back to his high school days in Camden, NJ.

Ragone showed obvious rust in the passing game last season, catching just six passes for 60 yards, a total that included a 30-yarder vs. Navy in early November) but the physical Ragone should be ready to roll entering his senior season. A solid 2010 would open the door for Ragone to play a key 5th-year role in 2011.

We Have Questions: Former head coach Charlie Weis featured the two-tight end attack (largely utilizing Ragone as a sixth offensive lineman); can Ragone maintain consistency as Kelly's blocking tight end? Can Ragone harness his (still impressive) straight-line speed to develop as a legitimate downfield target? More important, can Ragone become the reliable insider receiver needed to help move the chains? Will Ragone earn a role in the red zone as a dual-purpose player (extra run blocker and viable outlet receiver)?

Hope Springs Eternal: Ragone was playing with house money for the bulk of last season: it's hard to demand a 20-year old athlete play at a high level after missing two of the last three seasons of football (especially considering the season he played was the train wreck known by Irish fans as "2007"). But Ragone made two sloppy, mental errors in what amounted to about 10 total chances to make a play for the offense last season. His fresh start with the new regime is both a blessing and a curse: Ragone needs it and could produce…on the other hand he was an admitted favorite of the former head coach.

Spring Prediction: Ragone will star in the spring where his speed and competitiveness will translate well. He'll win a key role as one of Notre Dame's top 5 targets following the Blue Gold game in late April, but fans should remain skeptical until that focus translates to the field in the fall.

New Role? – Bobby Burger

Burger initially ranked as the team's best lead-blocking fullback in more than six seasons, yet his 2010 campaign can be separated into two parts: pre-cheap shot and post-cheap shot.

Burger was drilled near the pile (technically, or at least borderline, legal) in the first half vs. Washington (early October). The result was a concussion and neck injury…a tough combination to overcome for a lead-blocker who routinely searches for the opposing middle linebacker crashing into the line of scrimmage. He bounced back to play the following weeks vs. USC and BC but didn't show the same ferocity as a blocker.

The former walk-on and Dayton transfer sat out ensuing games vs. Washington State and Navy and recovered to earn two starts (Pittsburgh and Stanford) though both were largely a result of Rudolph's aforementioned shoulder injury.

We Have Questions: Is Burger fully recovered from his mid-season neck injury? Though every team needs a lead blocker, will Burger present enough of a target as a receiver out of the backfield to earn and keep the role over a player such as Robert Hughes (or plausibly Steve Paskorz)? Can Burger get into the mix as a detached receiver in Coach Kelly's offense?

Hope Springs Eternal: If Burger is healthy, he'll contribute, either as a blocker or special teams regular. He could play a key role as a detached blocker in space but will have to challenge Ragone for that overlooked element of the offense.

Spring Prediction: The team-oriented, dedicated Burger will emerge as the 2010 special teams captain.

Bouncing Back – Tyler Eifert

The freshman was the talk of August camp, with Weis ultimately stating that Eifert was not only needed in the grand scheme of things (he would have been), but that the former Fort Wayne star made it impossible for the staff to keep him off the field (and retain a season of eligibility).

After earning Week One playing time late in the blowout over Nevada, Eifert finally succumbed to the bulging disk in his back (an injury that had plagued the former high school basketball player since January of 2009). A debate regarding surgery or rehabilitation followed with the latter as the choice (as the former included the risk of forced retirement from football). Eifert will thus be allowed to apply for a medical red-shirt after graduation in three years.

We Have Questions: Aside from the obvious, could the former high school safety be a candidate for a temporary position change? If he remains at tight end in 2010, can Eifert supplant one of two upperclassmen, both of which rank among the team's most physical and competitive players?

Hope Springs Eternal: Eifert is expected to be full-go for spring practice but the rehab program will be part of his career at Notre Dame and his athletic daily life (according to Weis last winter). Eifert's soft-spoken demeanor belies a physical style, and the athletically gifted tight end could develop into a major weapon over the next four seasons.

Spring Prediction: Eifert earns a special teams role and remains at tight end entering fall camp.

Recruit No. 24 – Jake Golic

At 6'4" 232 entering his freshman season, we can assume the red-shirted Golic was not one of the players that Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick noted when he discussed the unacceptable level of weight loss incurred by the Irish roster over the course of the 13-week season.

Nevertheless, Golic could easily fit into the "Big Skill" category coveted by the new staff (athletes in the 6'4" 215-220 range with room to grow). Such players will be moved into roles that suit their talents and the needs of the roster. Golic is an ideal candidate for early career movement.

We Have Questions: Last August, Golic made note of his fondness for hitting, can he become a special teams contributor as a sophomore? Will he remain at tight end with four players ensconced at the position (three of which remain for at least two more seasons) and another talented target (Alex Welch) coming on board in the fall?

Hope Springs Eternal: Any player willing to hit and run will have a chance to develop under a coaching staff looking to change the culture of mediocrity.

Spring Prediction: Golic will be knocking on the door as a member of the kick return unit and punt coverage unit.

Waiting in the Wings – Alex Welch

The first-team all-state tight end from Cincinnati Elder (from which Kyle Rudolph also hails) ranks as the No. 4 incoming player at his position by Scout.com. Kelly noted his A.) Room for growth, and B.) Skill-set, savvy and obvious competitive nature.

Sounds like a five-year guy to me.

We Have Questions: Can Welch distinguish himself early as a blocker? Can he impress the offensive staff with a willingness to make the tough catch, as productivity is likely out of the question for any freshman tight end joining the Irish over the next two seasons (assuming Rudolph remains in the fold).

Hope Springs Eternal: Notre Dame has a four-decade run of excellence at the tight end position. That unprecedented streak of success appears safe with Rudolph and his current upperclassmen understudies. Welch and Eifert will look to continue the remarkable run as five-year players.

Summer Camp Prediction: He'll be noticed, but the year of seasoning enjoyed by Golic and Eifert affords the soph's a leg up on the newcomer.

Note: The film reviews and season previews of each player that appeared daily from May through the end of July last season will again be featured in the summer months.

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