In July, IrishEyes rated Notre Dame’s tight ends as the team’s best position group.
In August, the top three targets: Kyle Rudolph, Mike Ragone and Bobby Burger, each missed camp time due to injury. Rudolph, a potential first team All America this season, missed the majority of camp after tweaking his hamstring.
Ragone later sat out four practices because of a heat-related illness and Burger missed a small portion of time after “getting dinged” in a scrimmage.
Now Ragone, he of the two ACL surgeries prior to 2009, has suffered the double dip, missing Wednesday’s practice.
“Unfortunately, he has an inner ear infection,” Kelly noted with concern. “He had severe headaches. He’s in the infirmary right now.
“We were really concerned because he’s been doing so well (after the heat illness). He bounced back and was doing really well, but we don’t know what his status is going to be until I get a chance to talk to the doctors.
“He can’t catch a break right now,” Kelly continued of the oft-sidelined Ragone. “He had two great days…we’ll have to find out his status.”
Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar had noted Ragone’s progress just one day prior.
“Mike Ragone is like a new man. He has worked extremely hard,” Molnar said. “I would say this: when he comes (all the way) back, we’ll be glad to have him active again on the team. Because he’s really working really hard and he’s really concentrating on his skills and I think he appreciates his second chance.”
Back from the Back
At this time last season, former head coach Charlie Weis offered that then freshman tight end Tyler Eifert was likely too good to keep off the field, noting that he’d forced the staff to notice him despite the presence of three quality veterans in front of him.
Eifert debuted vs. Nevada, but missed the remainder of the season due to a bulging disc in his back. The injury threatened his playing career, but the Fort Wayne sophomore bounced back with strong winter workouts and a decent spring.
Due largely to the absence of the veterans ahead of him throughout camp, Eifert has reemerged for the current staff. With four seasons of eligibility remaining, Tyler Eifert is a name with which Irish fans will become familiar.
“Tyler right now looks like a BCS football player,” said Molnar on Tuesday. “In the spring we really couldn’t see it, he was somewhat limited at times and we did have Mike and Kyle (limited as well) so Tyler was really in the back.
“But this camp he’s stepped to the forefront and Tyler Eifert’s going to play a lot of winning football for us this year.”
Position coach Mike Denbrock echoed Molnar’s comments last night.
“He has made so much progress and gained so much experience over the course of camp, Denbrock said. “Those reps wouldn’t be duplicated if Kyle was full speed and full time because we’d be preparing him.
“But with the circumstances, it was an education through repetition. You’re going to see a lot of great things from Tyler Eifert this season.”
Ragone was on the upswing after April; Eifert emerged August…but the massive Rudolph is a different breed from his position competitors – the nation’s best; the top tight end prospect for the 2011 NFL Draft and a sure bet to secure the clutch catch for new quarterback Dayne Crist this fall.
Rudolph’s hamstring issue lingered through camp and it’s an injury that has a high instance of reoccurrence. Make no mistake: his presence is mandatory if the Irish offense is to approach its potential this season.
“Physically he’s 100 percent,” Kelly said of Rudolph after practice Wednesday. “Mentally he’s got some work to do. Being involved in this offense…he didn’t do much in the spring, either,” Kelly noted.
“He’s been well-conditioned by coach Longo (as well as on the sidelines during practice). “We do not bring a player back and run him with our team unless there’s been a (prior) conditioning element that gives him to us. It makes no sense. You don’t bring a guy in (to practice) to do three reps.
“So he’s been conditioned enough to play on Saturday.”
Denbrock saw incremental and promising progress in Ragone throughout the week of practice.
“I think today was by far his best day,” he said. “He looked okay on Monday; yesterday he looked a lot better and today he looked a lot better than he did on Tuesday. If that trend continues, I think we have the Kyle Rudolph that we all need and want back in the lineup on Saturday.
Could Rudolph be effective at less than 100 percent?
“I think Kyle Rudolph at any percent is a good person to have running your offense, but everything that I’ve seen this week shows he’s back and ready to go full speed.”
Asked if Rudolph’s mental readiness limits the offense for Game One, Kelly indirectly offered his ‘Next Man In’ mantra.
“I wouldn’t say that. It’s allowed us to find that we have some very good tight ends that may take some of his playing time away.”
Bobby on the Spot
Senior Bobby Burger won’t threaten Rudolph’s role in the offense. The two are polar opposites as tight ends: Burger the bruising blocker, both attached to the line and as a lead out of the backfield while Rudolph serves as the NFL prototype.
The Irish will need the former, in myriad situations, over the season slate.
“He brings so much versatility to us offensively,” Denbrock offered of Burger, the former high school option fullback and Dayton University defensive end. “If we do get into a traditional two-back look he can jump in there and be more of a fullback type; he can get in two-tight end formations and be a very effective blocker in short-yardage and goal line situations.
“He’s kind of a go-to guy for us that will be physical and get his nose bloodied”
Burger served as the team’s best lead blocker prior to an early October neck injury last season. Expect the senior to serve in a variety of special teams roles as well.
“He’s a good guy to have around because he’s so versatile in that way that we can fit him in a number of different spots,” Denbrock added.