When you have a tight end with the speed to stretch the field, and get deep past the linebackers, this opens up a lot of things in both the running game and the passing game. Linebackers can't just play "down hill" or constantly moving forward in run support because they have to respect the speed of Carlson, that he'll run right by them, and they will have to defend him if he releases in a pass route.
Safeties also have to be aware, because he'll quickly get to their zone, or their part of the field, and that opens up a lot one-on-one situations for other Irish receivers.
Unfortunately, in 2007, Carlson's ability wasn't maximized due to poor pass protection. Many times you'd see him in helping with pass protection in "max protect" and that really hurt the Irish offense. It hurt both the running game and the passing game.
Now that Carlson has departed, there are only two scholarship tight ends on the roster this spring—Will Yeatman and Mike Ragone. Both combined for just seven receptions and 44 yards all of last season.
However, both do possess a lot of skills that Carlson had, but thus far, neither have shown they can do all the things Carlson did previously.
Yeatman (three-star prospect) is a big guy. Listed at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, he appears to be even bigger than that. He's a solid blocker at this point, but will only get better as he gets more reps. Blocking is probably what he does best, but he does have some soft hands, and enough quickness and athletic ability to get open as a tight end. Can he "get vertical" or deep past the linebackers like Carlson? Probably not, but he's a guy who uses his height and body well, and he will get open and make plays.
I've been a big fan of Mike Ragone (four-star prospect) since watching his highlight film in high school. You just don't see guys his size running as fast as he does. He definitely has the speed to "get vertical," and probably more than Carlson. At 6-foot-5, 230, he has some growing to do, and this off season will be critical for Ragone's development.
Adding weight, strength, and getting to know the playbook will be vital for Ragone this winter. A strong spring will be important because there is a lot of "star power" on the way.
He did have an ACL surgery after his junior season, which forced him to miss all of his senior season in high school, but he should be fully healed by now. He's in a tough situation because Yeatman is going to play because he's the best blocking tight end right now, so if Ragone wants to play, he'll have to show he's the best receiving threat, and a solid blocker to hold off the charge of two talented freshmen.
The Irish have two excellent tight end prospects enrolling in 2008. Both Kyle Rudolph and Joseph Fauria possess talents that should push for early playing time in 2008.
6-foot-7, 235-pound Kyle Rudolph (five-star prospect) is going to surprise a lot of people when he gets to Notre Dame. I don't think most people understand how truly athletic he is. Like Carlson, he's a great basketball player and understands how to use his body to gain position. Also, like Carlson, he runs very well for his size. He's also just growing into his body and can easily add another 25 pounds rather quickly.
Because of basketball, I don't see him adding a lot of weight between now and August, but as long as he shows up in good shape, I think he has a great shot to see playing time in 2008. Surprisingly, he's also a pretty sound blocker, which will help him get on the field. The sky is the limit, and he could end up having quite a career at Notre Dame.
Joseph Fuaria (four-star prospect) is kind of the forgotten man, just as Yeatman was when he came in, and we all know how that worked out. At 6-foot-7, 240 pounds, Fauria has a very similar game to Yeatman. He's a pretty solid blocker at this point, and is probably a better receiving threat than Yeatman was at the same time in his career.
I think Fauria's best football is ahead of him. He's just growing into that big frame, and I think you'll see him become even more athletic as he develops. Fauria, like Rudolph, has the potential to be a complete tight end, like Carlson. They have the ability to "do it all," get deep past the linebackers, block, and catch.
Head coach Charlie Weis has a lot of potential at the tight end position heading into 2008, but as we've seen in 2007, potential means inexperience. Inexperience often times means a lot of mistakes. All of these players have the ability to be excellent football players, but I don't think we can say any are great or even good football players at this point. They'll have to develop into being productive players. Hopefully that will happen sooner rather than later.