Irish Down on Numbers, Not on Talent

The Irish have had a good run of elite tight ends lately with former Irish great Anthony Fasano and John Carlson recently staring for Notre Dame on the gridiron. Not long ago it looked as if Notre Dame had plenty more talented tight end prospects waiting in wings. A transfer and a suspension later and just a couple men are left standing this spring.

What once appeared to be a loaded position at tight end now has just one scholarship player recruited to play end, and another scholarship athlete moved there this spring. Sophomore Mike Ragone certainly has star potential, and junior Luke Schmidt is an excellent athlete, but neither is a proven commodity at tight end at this point.

"We always had a good number, and we do have a couple coming in, right now we have four," said Irish tight ends coach Bernie Parmalee. "(Mike) Ragone and Luke (Schmidt) are getting the majority of the reps. It helps them a lot because those guys are getting the experience, and they're getting all the focus. It's like going into a classroom where you only have a few students. You can give a lot more attention to just a few whereas if you had 40 something students. Having low numbers right now is really beneficial to those guys."

With the suspension of junior Will Yeatmen, Ragone has a golden opportunity to solidify a starting spot this spring for the Irish offense next fall. Parmalee says Ragone is progressing nicely, but still has a ways to go before becoming a complete tight end.

"I think all around," Parmalee said when asked where Ragone needs to improve the most. "Being a student of the game, understanding fronts, coverages, blocking schemes, calls, everything that tight end entails. He's just got to get better physically, mentally and technique-wise."

The Cherry Hill, N.J. native enrolled last summer as a freshman at Notre Dame and has been trying to overcome a serious knee injury suffered in high school.

"Yes, I did, I had an ACL injury," said Parmalee when asked if he had any similar injuries during his playing career. "I know full well what he was going through.

"Usually it's about a year and half to two years before you get everything back because the most important thing you have to get back is the strength of your leg. You're going to fix the joint and fix the tendon, but now you have to regain the muscle mass back. Then you've got gain that strength back in the leg."

"I'm definitely seeing that," Parmalee said when asked if Ragone is starting to look like the player he was before the injury. "I knew the process, so I knew it was going to take some time. Right now he's seeing that he's able to do a lot more things than he was able to do last year. Physically he wasn't able to do a lot of things. As much as you want it, and your mind is telling you to do it, your body still has to heal, and it takes some time for it to heal.

"He's definitely making plays out there. He's been playing very well, and he's moving much better than he was last year."

The former USA Army All-American isn't the biggest guy, listed at 6-foot-5, 241 pounds, but one can tell he has added some good weight over the past few months during winter lifting.

"Oh yea. If you've got proper technique, you have proper leverage and use good body control," Parmalee said when asked if Ragone can be an effective blocker at the point of attack at that weight. "You don't have to kill a guy. You know where the ball is; just don't let him go there. Some of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL are some of the smaller ones. These guys understand the technique. You can out-technique a guy to death. That's what he needs to focus on."

Want-to and aggressiveness have never been a problem for Ragone. The sophomore tight end is known as one of the more aggressive players on the team.

"You've just got to learn to channel it," Parmalee said of Ragone's physical nature. "You can play overaggressive, and lose focus on your technique and fundamentals of the position, but you've got to learn to channel it. Right now he's learning how to do that. The kid is very aggressive. He likes to hit. He likes to play the game. He's a guy who wants to learn. Those are three great things to have."

In pre-spring Charlie Weis press conference Weis explained the move of Luke Schmidt to tight end this spring.

"It's a perfect time for him. Luke's greatest strength has been with the ball in his hands. He's got really soft hands. He's got a big body and he plays very good close to the line of scrimmage," Weis said.

Parmalee explained what Weis meant when discussing Schmidt's ability to play closer to the line of scrimmage.

"Sometimes some guys just can't play in space, so the closer they are to their man, the better off they are," he said. "Some guys can do it and some guys can't. You've got to realize what guys are capable of doing and don't put them into situations that they can't do."

"Oh yes. There's a lot of positives," Parmalee said of Schmidt's ability to help Notre Dame next season at tight end. "He's a smart kid. He understands the game. When you have smart guys, they can help.

"There's a lot of carry over for him. When you have different personnel groups, a fullback is a fullback, and when you get two tight ends, one of the tight ends goes in as a fullback. There's carry over right there. He understands a lot of the nuances of playing the position. Also he understands protections and things like that."

Parmalee said Schmidt is picking things up pretty quickly this far.

"He's eager to learn," he said. "I think he sees this as an opportunity to get on the field. He's working hard. He's picking things up. He can help us there."

The Irish do have some very talented freshmen enrolling at tight end this summer in Kyle Rudolph and Joseph Fauria, and many expect Yeatman to return to the team this summer. Ragone certainly has a great opportunity this spring to earn the starting spot. And knowing his love for competition and playing aggressive, it's doubtful he'll let that opportunity pass him by.


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