Mean Streak

What a difference a year makes. Exactly one year ago, then senior John Carlson seemed poised to lead Notre Dame out onto the field with backup Will Yeatman breathing down his neck at the tight end spot.

The only mention of Mike Ragone was that of his potential and upside as a highly touted freshman with exceptional speed that would give opposing linebackers and defensive coordinators headaches. Now as the 2008 season nears, it appears that for the time being, the Camden, N.J. native has received his opportunity sooner than he expected.

Headed into spring practice, Yeatman was suspended from the squad for a semester for off-the-field issues, opening the door for Ragone. Despite being one of only three scholarship tight ends on the roster, the sophomore placed his full focus and efforts into becoming the go-to-guy at his position. His commitment to improvement didn't go unnoticed within the coaching staff, as head coach Charlie Weis has given him the nod as the starter early on this fall.

"So with being out there every day of every play last spring, it's tough for me to imagine saying, ‘okay, Will, I'm going to put you ahead of Ragone who just busted his butt the whole spring,'" Weis said. "It doesn't work that way."

Although spring practice took its toll on Ragone's body and stamina, the exposure to being the starter gave the sophomore a glimpse of what it was like to deal with the pressure of being the premier option.

"Besides the fact that Will had his situation, it was great." Ragone said. "I had every opportunity and I was getting coached by everyone and I had like 99-percent of the reps. I was in there every second. Besides being tired, it was great because I know everything now, and now headed into training camp, I know so much more."

Did it help?

"Tremendously," he said without a doubt. "It helped so much. I turned into a better player."

Now that he has developed throughout the off-season, Ragone is looking to make a lot more catches and create when the ball is in his hands. Being the first option on the depth chart, it's fairly clear that he will receive plenty of opportunities to do so. As of now, the only numbers Ragone has to show for last season is a lone catch for seven yards.

"It was great catching one, though," he said. "It was pretty exciting. I didn't know what happened at the time. It was like I caught the ball, and I thought it was like two yards. It was funny."

Although he wants to receive a higher burden of responsibility, don't get confused with his desire for statistical gains.

"Stats really don't mean anything to me," Ragone said. "I just want to help the team out obviously. For me, honestly, as a goal I want to catch 300 hundred balls. I love it when the ball is in my hands; I feel like I'm a better player when the ball is in my hands."

Despite Ragone's introverted personality, in his first meeting with the media this fall, he divulged a glance into the process in which his background has shaped his playing style and tenacity. His father, Michael, also played football at Temple University.

"He played on the defense as a defensive lineman, and then he played running back too," the younger Ragone said. "Then he got hurt, though. He severely hurt his back and couldn't play anymore."

As a player for the Owls, Michael Ragone always emphasized speed above anything else. Velocity and acceleration, he felt were the qualities that separated the good players from the special ones. In the case of his son, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

"My dad is the reason why I'm all about speed," the sophomore said. "Because he was a track runner and I became a track runner so I sort of came off of him."

During the spring, when Ragone had his first interview with the media due to Weis' rule that prohibits freshman from becoming available for interviews, the tight end turned some heads with his confidence in his own abilities.

"You can hit what you can't catch," he then said referring to his speed on the field. Several months later, he echoed the same thoughts. "Of course," he said. "I always feel that way. Speed is everything."

To further improve on his quickness, Ragone's off-season workouts have focused on achieving a balance of adding bulk to his frame, without sacrificing any of his speed.

"With coach Mendoza there's been a lot of running with the team, and then by myself on the weekends," he said. "Just trying to get better. I've been working on putting weight on and blocking. Last year I was a little light, but now I'm at 255, so blocking, route running, everything. I'm trying to be an all-around tight end."

Since his father has undergone the rigors and responsibilities being a college athlete upholds, Ragone knows where to turn for counseling and advice when he needs it.

"I call my dad all the time just to talk to him," he said. "Because him and my grandfather, they're always there for me. There's always days you miss balls, or get reamed out by coach Weis and that's not real good. So then you just want to talk to someone so I call my dad."

Another part of Ragone's past that follows him on the football field is his wrestling background. As a heavyweight, he won the 2005 Beast of the East wrestling tournament that includes top schools from the Atlantic coast. Although the sports are completely different, the experience has given the sophomore a mean streak.

"My wrestling coach, when I was little, he was tough," Ragone said. "He really beat us up. And then in high school, we were ranked nationally. Wrestling definitely brought that attitude out more."

So what can Ragone take away from his experiences on the mat?

"Being nasty and being aggressive," he said without flinching.


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