His ability to seek, control and, occasionally, dominate his assigned blocker at the point of attack is back where it belongs. And his desire to hit, battle, scrap, and play football through more than a dozen years of dings, injuries, and aches, has never wavered.
But something is missing from Mike Ragone's current skill set; an element of the game that plagues most young, talented college athletes, and one that can't continue to suppress the production of Notre Dame's oldest player.
While internet speculation that Ragone has lost his lateral quickness and burst if not sprinting speed is likely accurate, it's been Ragone's inconsistent health and hands that have defined his last two seasons.
Drops heard round the ‘BendThe first was an innocuous flair during a 33-30 win over Michigan State in 2009, a standing-still dropped pass I later referred to as "grade-school level." It was meaningful if only because it would have been the tight end's first after missing the previous season – one in which he was slated for starting duty – with a torn ACL suffered in August camp.
The second, a shuffle pass on a fourth-down two-point conversion attempt at Pittsburgh in Charlie Weis' final month. Considering the Irish lost by five, it was anything but meaningless.
The third, and most recent, was the most egregious – a simple swing pass on 2nd and 4 that would have picked up a first down and thus ended a 23-17 contest between the Irish and Panthers last October.
Ragone dropped each, the latter forgotten by many because the Irish defense picked up their teammate, keeping the Panthers a solid 80 yards away from the would-be winning score.
Ever the grizzled veteran and one of the best interviewees on the 2011 roster, the 6'4" 245-pound Ragone accepted full responsibility for the drop, but insisted his confidence never wavered, nor would he question his ability to step-in for injured starter Kyle Rudolph.
"Why would I want to be Kyle Rudolph? Or Why would Tyler Eifert want to be Mike Ragone?" Ragone noted when asked if he felt pressure to replace the fallen Irish star.
"I started last year. This is not my first time being on the field. (Rudolph) went down last year I was the guy. We've been down the same road. I've been out for two seasons. It's just playing football, nothing different."
Rudolph's starting spot was won that week by Tyler Eifert, who played well enough in Rudolph's stead over the final half of 2010 to be widely viewed as a Top 10 Irish competitor heading into 2011.
But that doesn't mean Ragone won't fight for starting snaps during every practice rep.
"He's just so competitive," said offensive coordinator Charley Molnar of his 5th-year tight end. "He just doesn't sit there and say ‘It's Tyler Eifert's job.'
"Every day he's going out there trying to snatch that job away from Tyler."
Molnar later added, "We've got both these guys on the field because at the end of the day, Mike Ragone is going to play somewhere between 40 and 60 plays per game. And if you have him and Eifert splitting time in practice, they're not going to develop as much as they could, so this (two tight end sets) has allowed both guys to get more playing time and more work in practice."
After two knee injuries and multiple seasons serving mainly as a blocker for the ground game, can Ragone finally contribute as a downfield receiver?
"I think Mike will catch more balls this year because he's going to feel more comfortable. (Last year) he ran the plays as they were drawn up in the playbook, but as you're out there on the field, things change," Molnar offered. "Nothing is the same two times in a row. So Mike has now learned the flow of our offense, how to adapt, and read coverages, and move with the defense and find open areas so much better than he did a year ago.
"Mike has great vertical speed. He can be a real threat, but he has to know how to use that speed, get in and out of breaks and work windows. I think he's a better football player today than he was in the Sun Bowl."
If that improvement continues, two tight end sets might be part of Irish football Saturdays this fall.
Ragone's SnapshotMost important play, 2010: Trailing 16-13 and facing 2nd-and-Goal at the USC 5-yard line, Ragone found, secured, and eventually pancaked Trojans linebacker Malcolm to allow Irish running back Robert Hughes a seam on the game winning touchdown burst through the heart of USC's defense. Ragone slammed Smith to his knees in the end zone as Hughes hit pay dirt.
Not important, but a nonetheless entertaining anecdote from 2010: Near the conclusion of each contest, press box media makes its way to the sidelines to arrive at the post-game interviews in a timely manner. The season's final game afforded me a perfect view of this exchange:
With just over three minutes remaining in a Sun Bowl blowout of Miami, Ragone controlled Miami defensive end Olivier Vernon at the point of attack, allowing Irish running back Cierre Wood a 26-yard gain, the last meaningful play of the drive/contest prior to an ending Irish field goal. Vernon nevertheless hustled to contribute to the tackle downfield and came up barking at Wood. Ragone and Vernon exchanged words, with Ragone finalizing his side of the trash talk with a telling hand signal. The sign Ragone formed with his two hands? What else, but a (sarcastic) "U"…he was benched two seconds later, but well worth it, from my point of view.
Fun fact: Ragone's most memorable college play, his aforementioned full-field sprint and tackle of Cougars safety Chima Nwachukwu, does not appear in the official box score. No tackle was credited for what is considered a dead play (the blocked PAT is scored, as would have been the two-point return had Ragone not intervened). It may not have counted, but it's a lasting memory and was likely the best defensive play of the 2009 Irish season, as well as one of the best examples of sheer hustle and competitive drive over the last decade at the program.
Not-so-fun fact: In a statistical career oddity, Ragone is the only player in the 125-year history of the program to participate in three losses to the Naval Academy. He caught a pass in the 2007 triple-overtime defeat as a true freshman; sat out the 2008 win due to a knee injury; caught a career-best 30-yard pass in relief of injured Kyle Rudolph in the '09 loss in South Bend; and caught a 9-yard pass in last year's defeat as well.
Notes: Has appeared in 24 of the team's last 25 games since missing the 2008 season with a knee injury…Career numbers include 10 receptions or 99 yards, a career-best 30-yard grab (Navy '09) with 35 games played and nine starts (Tulsa and Utah last fall in a two-tight end formation)…Logged 113 special teams appearances as a freshman ('07); played 158 minutes with an additional 101 special teams appearances as a junior ('09); added 183 snaps last season (for the sake of comparison: 9 fewer than RB Robert Hughes.)