Lightning Strikes

One news conference, one injury, myriad possibilities.

Just in case no one was paying attention

More than 40 media members gathered for Brian Kelly's seventh game-week press conference this afternoon. To the surprise of none, the obligatory first question: "What's the plan with (injured tight end) Kyle Rudolph?" predictably kicked off today's proceedings.

Kelly's answer, however, shocked everyone.

"Kyle is going to be out for the season. He's going to have surgery within the next two days," Kelly offered as keyboards clicked furiously in front of him. "There was an avulsion of both tendons (it came off the bone) so that will require surgery.

"His family is putting together the surgery: the doctor, the rehab, all of those things."

Kelly noted that the noon time announcement was new information to everyone other than Rudolph and his family.

"I'm not kidding: this is the first time that anyone (has heard the information). The players did not know, they'll be hearing this second-hand. I wanted to make sure the information got to you because we have a football game to play and we want all the inquiries asked and answered," Kelly said.

"You guys are the first to know…hopefully for the last time…we don't want to make a habit of this," he joked.

First tweaked in early August, Kelly mentioned that in-game exertion Saturday caused Rudolph's season-ending hamstring injury.

"He's a courageous kid, he tried to play through it, but unfortunately it led to him being sidelined for the season."

The bowl game is likewise out of the question.

"The rehab protocol on this is about six months. That would put him somewhere in April in terms of being involved in some form of work."

Kelly answered that he has not had a conversation with Rudolph regarding the NFL Draft. He added that the Irish training staff was diligent in its daily handling of the now two-month nagging injury prior to Saturday's exacerbation.

"I think we did the things necessary to know our players," Kelly said when asked if he wishes he had taken a different tact treating the initial hamstring injury. "Kyle was in great hands with our training staff; our doctors. It was a daily interaction we had with Kyle…just one of those unfortunate things that occurs when you're playing a sport like this. This is an injury that is becoming a lot more common because of the explosiveness of these young men."

Rudolph's surgery will take place within the next few days.

At least a tandem…maybe a trio

Rudolph struggled mightily over the last three contests, catching just seven passes for 41 yards, though five of those grabs occurred Saturday. In the season's first three contests, the relatively healthy junior All-America candidate snared 21 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns.

Exactly how many tight ends does it take to replace a Kyle Rudolph in Brian Kelly's spread attack?

Figure at least two, with a third at the ready.

"It's a next man in philosophy for us," Kelly offered. "Tyler Eifert, Mike Ragone, Jake Golic…those guys are going to have to step up and play the position for us at a high level. We have a lot of confidence in them."

Redshirt-freshman Tyler Eifert is expected to start despite a painful shoulder injury that has severely limited his practice time this month.

"He had a ligament sprain: it is different from what we see as the AC joint sprain," Kelly said when asked to define Eifert's injury. "This is more of a ligament sprain that is very painful. He has good strength; this is a management of the pain more than anything else.

Eifert injured the shoulder two weeks ago in practice diving for a ball. "He's done very little; we took him off all the (special teams) as well." As for Kelly's certainty that Eifert will contribute Saturday? "He's going to have to tape an aspirin on that shoulder. He's going to play." Golic is the least experienced of the trio, appearing briefly vs. Purdue and Boston College after being withheld from action as a true freshman last season.

Tight ends coach Mike Denbrock spoke highly of the first-time contributor during the team's mid-August media day.

"He's really making strides in the right direction," Denbrock noted of Golic in the pre-season. "He has gotten more reps than normal, but it's been a great thing for him to grow and learn and develop himself as a player. He's going to help us."

Eifert earned his first start vs. Stanford two weeks after a solid effort in the 28-24 loss to Michigan.

"We think he's able to play winning football for us or we wouldn't put him in that situation," Kelly said of the redshirt-freshman who's been bothered for the last two weeks by a painful shoulder injury. "I don't know that anyone that six games into the season is 100 percent. If you are, you're probably not playing very much.

"From his stand point, he's ready to play and is excited about his opportunity. I know Mike (Ragone) is too. Both of those guys as a tandem and we'll use (Jake) Golic as well. All three of those guys will give us the production we want at that position. We feel very confident about that."

As for promising freshman tight end Alex Welch and accomplished senior blocker Bobby Burger, it appears neither will enter the mix - Welch on the field in any form; the special-teams regular Burger in the tight end equation

"We've talked about (Welch) but we believe the three tight ends that we have give us the best opportunity for success. I think we're pretty convinced that Alex is going to stay on Scout team.

Kelly offered that Burger's skill set is more of a tradition move tight end as a lead blocker.

"He's a different kind of tight end for us," Kelly said of Burger. "He'd be more of a wing-fullback in a hybrid position."

A window opens

One torn ACL in high school; one torn ACL prior to this sophomore season in college; a standout effort in last April's Blue Gold Game negated by a drug-related arrest in May; a bout with heat exhaustion in August; a dropped point-blank pass that put the game in jeopardy last Saturday.

Time for a clean slate for senior tight end Mike Ragone, the No. 2 ranked recruit at his position in the 2007 recruiting class.

"He just needs more playing time in an offense that is obviously a bit different from what he's used to: splitting out; different throws and angles. It's a departure for him," Kelly stated.

Ragone caught one pass as a rookie in 2007 and six balls including a 30-yarder down the seam vs. Navy in relief of Rudolph last fall. Ragone caught his first pass of the season over the weekend prior to the oft-referenced drop.

Kelly stated that both Eifert and Ragone will contribute heavily as neither can play at a high level for 75 to 80 plays.

Ragone was an integral part of former coach Charlie Weis' offense last season, logging 158:45 of playing time along with 101 special teams appearances. He started seven games while appearing in all 12.

Receivers' Resurgence?

If a trio of tight ends can't fill Rudolph's sizeable role in the offense, what about one of the lesser used wide receivers?

"Oh sure…it's something that has been part of my offense over the years," Kelly said of a 4-wide look. "I don't prefer (it), but having said that, we're going to put the best guys on the field that gives us the best chance to move the football.

"This is still about scoring points," he continued. "If we think we need to put a fourth receiver on the field whether it be T.J. (Jones) or (John) Goodman or Duval Kamara, we'll look at that as a possibility.

"I've always preferred keeping a tight end on the field but we'll do what we need to do."

The new jinx?

First came the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. Decades of formerly fortunate sports stars were felled by its reach. The new generation has since become familiar with the Madden Video Game jinx and the string of NFL stars who suffered injury or a production drop as a "result."

Are IE subscribers now ready to admit the Irish Eyes Magazine version has taken root? Last August we featured sophomore wide receiver Michael Floyd on our pre-season cover. Floyd missed five games with a broken collarbone.

This August, the choice was Kyle Rudolph, with the cover line: "The Sure Thing".

In the wake of today's announcement, there's at least a 50 percent chance you'll see a Wolverine, Trojan or possibly a former Wolverine-turned-Cardinal coach grace the pages of our magazine next August. We'll begin taking suggestions for your favorite Irish foil sometime in late July…

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