#3 Tight EndsStarters, key reserves: Junior Kyle Rudolph, sophomore Tyler Eifert, senior Mike Ragone and senior Bobby Burger. Sophomore Jake Golic saw limited action and freshman Alex Welch was withheld to preserve a possible 5th season of eligibility.
Position Coach: Mike Denbrock
IrishEyes' pre-season rank: No. 1 (of 12)
Quote to note: "Oh yeah. He's a very good player. Again, I've had some good players at other schools at that position, but he's has good as I've coached." – head coach Brian Kelly's August comments on the potential of redshirt-freshman Tyler Eifert.
By the numbers: One of our 20 Summer Predictions posited that Kyle Rudolph would post the best statistical season for a tight end in program history. The numbers to beat: Ken MacAfee's 1977 performance of 54 receptions, 797 yards and 6 touchdowns. The guess was that Rudolph would garner more grabs for the same number of scores with slightly fewer yards.
After a fast start, the prediction was shelved when Rudolph's lingering summer hamstring injury finally sidelined him for the season after a Game Six matchup with Pittsburgh. But Notre Dame's next starting tight ends, in tandem with the junior All-America, did his best to approach MacAfee's three-decade old mark of excellence:
- Kyle Rudolph as a starter (first 6 games): 28 receptions, 328 yards, 3 TD
- Tyler Eifert as a starter (final 6 games): 22 receptions, 304 yards, 2 TD
- Irish lead tight end (combined): 50 receptions, 632 yards, 5 TD
Eifert also added one catch for 17 yards as a backup tight end in Game Two vs. Michigan (his final regular season numbers: 23 grabs for 321 yards). Senior Mike Ragone tallied three catches for 32 yards in successive weeks vs. Pittsburgh, Western Michigan and Navy.
In tandem or taken singularly during different stages of the season, 2010 was a banner year for Rudolph and Eifert; statistically the best since 2006 when John Carlson and Marcus Freeman combined for 732 yards on 65 receptions with six scores and slightly surpassing the combined efforts of Anthony Fasano and Carlson in 2005 (54-632-3 TD).
Key backup: Mike Ragone logged considerable playing time after Week Five as a blocker in two tight-end sets, though he didn't approach the level of necessity to Brian Kelly's spread attack to the degree he did for Charlie Weis' offense last season (Ragone played 158 minutes and 45 seconds for Weis with 101 special teams appearances).
Best momentsTwo stick out with the former losing status as an all-time Notre Dame moment due to the defense's failure to stop the opponent on the ensuing, game-deciding drive.
Rudolph Goes 95: Trailing 21-17 with less than five minutes remaining, Rudolph sprinted down the right seam to haul in a 45-yard over-the-shoulder strike from QB Dayne Crist. The (already injured) future NFL star tight end did the rest, sprinting the remainder of the field for a go-ahead score that shook Notre Dame Stadium, reaching a noise level not heard in South Bend since midway through the 2005 season. Rudolph's catch would go down in program lore had the Wolverines offense not won the game on its final possession.
Eifert's Portent: There were several notable Eifert moments over the final six games, including a diving grab at the goal line in Yankee Stadium vs. Army, but his toughest catch, his most telling catch was a 17-yard crossing route vs. Michigan. In a two tight-end set, Eifert sprinted across the middle to secure the strike from backup Nate Montana. The first-year contributor from Fort Wayne took a huge hit from safety Cameron Gordon but stayed upright before being dragged down from behind. His first career catch was likely the best over-the-middle grab of the season by any Irish player and gave ND fans a glimpse of things to come.
In limited action that afternoon I also noted Eifert for three quality blocks paving the way for a total of 29 yards for Irish runners.
Moment to forget: Rudolph's one catch/one yard performance vs. Stanford hurt the offense, but was certainly injury related (he played his final game one week later). But the toughest moment for the position occurred late in a Game Six win over Pittsburgh in South Bend. With the Irish leading 23-17 facing a key 2nd and 4 late in the contest, Ragone, who had nothing but green and an easy first down, suffered an unconscionable drop of a perfect pass at chest level on a quick flair pass to the near side.
Brian Kelly's priceless reaction, a primal scream toward the sky, summed up the situation in its entirety for the team, his own (ideal) play call, and frustrated Irish fans.
To his credit, Ragone spoke about the drop during the following week after practice, even admitting how much open space he saw in front of him and that he had no excuse whatsoever on the head-shaking effort.
The Irish defense stopped the Panthers on the following series to secure the contest.
Class status: Ragone can apply for a medical redshirt due to a 2008 knee injury and return for a 5th-season in 2011; Rudolph will be a senior next fall with one season of eligibility remaining. He's faced with the possibility of declaring for the 2011 NFL Draft as well.
Eifert sat out last season, his freshman year, due to a back injury and is likely to be eligible through the 2013 season; classmate Jake Golic should also be eligible through 2013 after remaining sidelined in ‘09 while Alex Welch could remain with the Irish through 2014 after sitting out this year as a true freshman.
Senior tight end/fullback Bobby Burger has exhausted his eligibility after three seasons with the Irish and two at Dayton (2006-07). Burger's on-field efforts this season will be reviewed with the Irish ‘backs and the return units as well as the previously reviewed coverage units, slotted at No. 2 on our positional rankings.
Final Analysis: Our No. 1 pre-season ranking could have come to fruition had Rudolph remained upright. Should he return for a final season in 2011, the Eifert/Rudolph tandem will rank among the best (considering the level of development of both) in program history.