We saw the emergence of Kyle Rudolph and the tremendous ability and potential he possesses, but coming into the season the tight end position had the prospect of not only seeing Kyle Rudolph make plays, but I also anticipated the emergence of Mike Ragone with Will Yeatman serving as the blocking player.
Ragone's knee injury and Yeatman's suspension and eventual departure severely depleted the once promising depth chart for the Irish. That is what was disappointing. It forced a heavy burden on the shoulders of an inexperienced, albeit talented, freshman.
But once that burden was thrust upon young Kyle Rudolph's shoulders he stepped up to the plate and delivered. In an ideal world Rudolph would have been allowed to be brought along slowly. He would have played from day one, as any player with his talent should, but having both Ragone and Yeatman on board would have allowed the Irish to pick and chose when and how to use the talented freshman. But Ragone went down early in fall practice and Yeatman is a one-dimensional player. In order for the Irish offense to work up to its capabilities it needs a pass catcher at tight end. It was up to Rudolph to fill that void and he did so quite admirably.
Before the season I predicted that Rudolph, who was a five- star recruit and a Top 25 player, would catch between 18-22 passes. To my enjoyment he surpassed my expectations. Part of the reason was that he was forced to play so much so early, but the biggest part of the reason is that Rudolph didn't play like a freshman. Sure there are many areas of improvement, but from the first game of the season Rudolph looked like he belonged. It didn't appear to me that the stage was too big, as it can be with freshman, and he played like he knew he belonged here.
There were freshman mistakes, but I didn't see any freshman jitters. Rudolph has no glaring weaknesses in his game. By that I don't mean he didn't have areas where he struggled, the rest of this article will show he did, but what I mean is that there isn't an aspect of his game where he doesn't have talent or ability to excel. Much refinement is needed in each area, as will be discussed, but the talent is certainly there. That talent allowed Rudolph to have a couple of big games (Stanford and Hawaii) and also to make plays when needed in the seams. The future is very bright for the young tight end from Ohio.
CATCHING THE FOOTBALL:
As expected Rudolph displayed talent and potential as a pass catcher. The Cincinnati, Ohio native showed excellent hands, good concentration, and fearlessness. Several of his 29 receptions were in traffic, with defenders draped all over him, or in between several defenders where a big hit was imminent. As we saw in the Hawaii game Rudolph also has the ability to go up and make plays. That is something I'd like to see the Irish do much more of in the future. That will be discussed in further detail later. There is no doubt that Rudolph's biggest strength is as a pass catcher. When the Irish set out to making him a key part of their game plan he would produce, and as he develops and learns the offense I see that being a weekly plan, not something that is brought out against certain defenses and looks.
Rudolph also showed a natural understanding of how to use his body, size, and athleticism to outmaneuver defenders and gain an advantage. This is especially true when he was working in the vertical seams. We saw the Irish coaches attempt to work screen throws to Rudolph. This is smart, and although it wasn't as successful this season as I'm sure they hoped it would, we did get a chance to see Rudolph's ability to make plays after the catch. His athleticism and agility is excellent for such a big and long player. He has good speed and knows how to make people miss. Rudolph also showed he isn't afraid to lower his shoulder and run a defender over, something I see him doing more of as he gets bigger and stronger. I predict here that in future seasons we will see Rudolph make a bunch of plays on screens and turning short throws into long gains.
There are areas where Rudolph can continue to improve as a pass catcher. First and foremost he needs to attack the football with more authority. Rudolph has a tendency to drift away from the football. On the short routes it is because he is anticipating the catch and already starting to make his move. He will learn as he matures to make the catch, tuck, and turn into one fluid motion, as opposed to two distinct movements. When running up the seams he has the tendency to continue running vertically even if the throw dictates he should either stop his momentum or attack back to the football. This cost the Irish an interception against Washington. This is something most freshmen have an issue with and it is correctable. Route running was Rudolph's biggest struggle as a freshman, which is to be expected. Rudolph was far too deliberate on his short and intermediate routes. This often telegraphed to the defense what he was about to do, this was especially true on the "stick route."
Rudolph will need to be smoother working in and out of his breaks, develop moves that allow him to work against defenders, and be quicker/more explosive out of his cuts. He also must continue to improve working against the zone. It seems to me that Rudolph has a solid understanding and ability to work against the zone. What we saw from his freshman year, quite naturally, is that he isn't as quick and decisive as he needs to be when trying to find the opening and present himself as an option to the quarterback. This is something that often corrects itself as a player gains more experience and confidence (in the offense and his knowledge, not in his ability).
This is the one area where I had the biggest concern regarding how productive Rudolph would be as a freshman. When evaluating Rudolph during his senior season and at the Army All-American game I believed in time he would be a solid blocker. But I was concerned that as a freshman he might struggle to hold up physically as a blocker. I was wrong. Rudolph had issues as a freshman when it came to blocking, but they were correctable technique issues and not a lack of toughness or strength. Rudolph held up quite well during his freshman campaign and when his technique was solid he was quite effective in the run game.
His blocking continued to improve all season. I saw toughness, aggressiveness, and a willingness to excel as a run blocker. This not only shows Kyle's immense talent, but also displays a great attitude. One that tells me he wants to be great, wants to be an all-around talent, and one of a player who is willing to do whatever it takes to win. There were several games this season (Washington, Syracuse, Navy, Pitt) where Rudolph wasn't a huge factor in the pass offense, but stayed focused and blocked well. That is a great sign.
Obviously Rudolph needs to spend a lot of time in the weight room getting bigger, stronger, and more explosive. But he showed this season he has good natural strength and fight. Rarely was he outmuscled or pushed around. Where his biggest issues were as a blocker was with his technique. Rudolph showed that he understands what he is doing out there, he simply just didn't always plays with the proper technique.
His footwork, often times, got him out of position and caused him to miss blocks. He also had a tendency to lunge at defenders, lose his base, and in effect lose the battle. There were also times where Rudolph fired off the line, kept a good base, showed good leverage, shot his hands properly, but failed to continue to work his feet and after a good start and wouldn't be able to finish the block. Hand use and hand placement also is an area that needs a lot of work. He will need to learn to use his hands and feet together much more effectively, become more consistent with his hand placement, and learn how to use his hands as a weapon when blocking.
ROLE IN THE OFFENE:
In a perfect world I would have loved to see Rudolph much more involved in the offense and used in a wider variety of ways. But in reality that is something that is down the road. His inexperience and lack of any upper class leadership (from his position) limited how much the Irish could have used him. I do believe he could have been used a bit more, but overall the Irish coaches did a good job of not putting too much on Rudolph's shoulders too early. That could have had a negative effect. They were able to teach him a couple of routes that he worked a lot (the stick route and the seam route) and there were also games where the coaches attempted to get Rudolph touches in the screen game.
Moving forward I expect to see the Irish coaches get very creative with Kyle Rudolph. His size, athleticism, and pass catching ability make him a big-time potential weapon. I expect to see the Irish coaches move Rudolph around with motions, shifts, and lining him up all over the field (in the box, in the slot, and out wide). This will allow the coaches to get Rudolph in good matchups where he can exploit the defense, it also gives them the opportunity to work him on a wider variety of routes. Rudolph caught the stick route a lot and caught a lot of seam routes but in the future he'll need to get the football over the middle and on the outside with crossing routes, in routes, dig routes, out routes, and flag routes. The more he makes plays in these areas the more dangerous he becomes. The more dangerous he becomes the more focus defenses will have to put on him. The more focus defenses put on him opens up even more opportunities for the talented wide receivers.
I'm going to make a bold statement, and a statement that is very unfair to Kyle Rudolph, but it's a statement I believe is a realistic possibility. Kyle Rudolph has a chance to end his Notre Dame career as the best college tight end to ever where the golden helmet and play inside the "House that Rockne built." There, I said it. It's unfair, but it's true. This isn't just about talent. Anyone who watches Rudolph knows that he has talent. He has great height (6-foot-6), an excellent frame that can carry a lot more weight, he has good speed, excellent agility, has great hands, great pass catching ability, and he shows the ability to be a solid blocker.
It is more than just his ability. What truly makes Rudolph special is a swagger and attitude that raises his game even higher combined with his ability. Rudolph, to me, is the key to the Notre Dame offense being really good (as it was in 2005 and to a certain degree in 2006) or being great. The better Rudolph is and the more plays he makes the better it makes everyone else. I have always believed that a playmaking tight end really drives an offense. If Rudolph is willing to work on and off the field there really isn't much limit to how good he can be. The sky is the limit.
By the middle of the season depth was a huge issue for the Irish. They were down to two true freshman tight ends. Losing Ragone to injury and Yeatman to suspension really depleted what could have been a deep and diverse tight end position. Mike Ragone is the wildcard at the tight end position. How will he recover from two knee injuries? If he is able to get back to 100 percent, then the Irish will have arguably the nation's top tight end tandem. Ragone isn't the athlete that Rudolph is and doesn't have the same size potential, but he is faster than Rudolph, has good catching ability in his own right, and also is a tough, hardnosed kid you'd expect to come from New Jersey. It's hard to say just how good he can be without seeing him in action or knowing where he is health-wise. But again, if Ragone can get healthy he and Rudolph can be used in a one-two tandem that gives the Irish coaches a ton of flexibility in both the run game and pass game.
Joseph Fauria didn't get a lot of playing time as a freshman, but in the time he did see he showed good potential. I would guess that in a perfect scenario the Irish coaches would have preferred to redshirt the young Fauria, but circumstances prevented them from doing so. Fauria is just massive and has an excellent frame to continue to grow. Like Rudolph and Ragone, Fauria also made his name in high school as a pass catcher.
For such a big player Fauria has very smooth hands and knows how to go up and make plays. What he doesn't have is the same kind of agility and speed that Rudolph and Ragone possess. That isn't a problem at all. Fauria is the one Irish tight end who I see as having the ability to really dominate the underneath and intermediate areas. He'll never be a guy who makes a ton of plays deep downfield, but Notre Dame already has that. What I'd like to see is Fauria emerge not only as a blocker (he needs to get a lot stronger but fights and has good technique/leverage for a big player), but also as the intermediate chain-mover. If Ragone isn't able to return Fauria will be needed next year. Having said that, a good offseason in the weight room, and learning the Irish offense, should allow Fauria to develop enough to challenge Ragone for the second tight end spot in the Irish offense.
The Irish also signed two tight ends in the Class of 2009. Tyler Eifert and Jake Golic are different players at this point. Eifert is arguably the best pass catching tight end in his class. He has the speed, agility, and ball skills of a big wide receiver. His frame and willingness to block (although he needs A LOT of work in this department) project him as a tight end in the future. Having said that Eifert, if he develops, has the skill set like Rudolph that will allow him to play all over the field and allow the Irish coaches to get creative in how to play him. Although Golic was used in a similar fashion to Eifert in high school, I see him being a more traditional tight end prospect. Golic is a raw player at this point who has a solid all-around game but lacks the overall athletic ability that the rest of the tight end unit possesses. He and Eifert, if both pan out, will be two distinctively different players, which also gives the Irish coaches flexibility in how to use them. Golic has an excellent frame and in the end I see him getting quite big, strong, and developing into a solid blocking tight end.
Season in Review: Tight End
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