Kyle Rudolph appeared to enter the Notre Dame Football program in 2008 under ideal conditions for a promising, five-star tight end. The overall depth at his position was strong, but not ridiculously deep due to both an NFL departure and transfer. One of the incumbents at tight end, Will Yeatman, boasted a much different skill set, while his chief downfield competition, then-sophomore Mike Ragone, complemented Rudolph's size and ability to run with blazing speed of his own.
Rudolph was expected to be brought along at an unrushed pace, backing up Ragone and Yeatman while serving (presumably) as the team's red zone weapon – a size/speed ratio, athletic mismatch who would contribute as a red zone threat while his teammates handled the heavy lifting.
Well you know what they say about the best laid plans…
Kyle Rudolph didn't fall into the starting job last season. He earned it through a strong pre-season showing coupled with an unfortunate injury to Ragone. But he did fall into a ridiculously high number of snaps for a first-year player forced to earn his keep along the line of scrimmage (and a team freshman record of nearly 370 minutes played).
Rudolph more than held his own, finishing with 33 receptions for more than 400 yards and a couple of scores. Finding a spot in the short zones, running fearlessly down the seams of the defense and winning jump balls came easily to the gifted receiver. Handling opposing defensive ends and outside linebackers, did not.
The late-September suspension of Yeatman forced Rudolph into the unfamiliar role of tussling with physically superior (and older) players at the point of attack…on every play. Rudolph struggled to secure the edge; he reached instead of relying on footwork; and as you might expect from a freshman that barely had time to digest the offense, his timing was intermittently off.But the progression of Rudolph from the season-opener vs. SD State to the bowl game victory over Hawaii was staggering. He was one of the 15 best players on the team by season's end while playing one of the most physically demanding positions in head coach Charlie Weis' offense. He showed improvement as a route-runner, confidence as a go-to receiver on third down, and he remained upright despite the lack of any serviceable backup at his position. No rational fan or analyst could consider Rudolph's body of work anything but a success considering his situation in '08. Just imagine how effective the sophomore could be in '09 with a little help.
Rudolph's Season Outlook:I'm working on a column projecting the team's top ten players at season's end. There are currently seven players that are locked into a spot and Rudolph is one of them. Considering Rudolph was likely "flying blind" for the better part of '08: trying to assimilate to the college game while facing better athletes and better schemes, (and the fact that he joined a train wreck masquerading as a running game) it's not a stretch to say the freshman's greatest accomplishment was surviving 13 games as an effective starter. Much will be expected of Rudolph this season. Unfinished blocks, poor angles on traps, and even an occasional dropped ball won't be greeted with the requisite "Ya, but he's gonna be great!" refrain much longer. 2009 won't be the best season of Rudolph's playing career...and that should be a troubling thought for his next 39 collegiate opponents.
Rudolph's Best Moments of 2008:
- Facing Purdue in Week Four, Rudolph sold a play-action fake and snuck behind two defenders (as the only option in the route) for his first career touchdown and a 28-14 advantage. After the Boilers cut the Irish lead to 28-21, Rudolph found a spot in Purdue's zone to secure a 19-yard reception on 2nd and 18 – seven plays later the Irish took a decisive 35-21 lead on a 4th down, 30-yard post-route score from Clausen to David Grimes.
- Week Five vs. Stanford, Rudolph posted then career-bests of 5 receptions and 70 yards. His first three grabs resulted in Irish first downs and eventual touchdowns while his final catch, a 16-yard (audibled) TD strike from Clausen, proved to be the unlikely deciding score as the Irish held on for a 28-21 victory.
- A first-half, Bowl Game clinic in which Rudolph gashed Hawaii for receptions of 28, 24, and 29 yards; the latter a 4th and 1 jump ball grab that set-up a half-ending touchdown and a 28-7 Irish lead.
Rudolph's Points of Emphasis for 2009:
- Footwork: I'm not an O-line coach, but it doesn't take the late Joe Moore to see that Rudolph fell into consistent trouble on backside (of the play) blocks when he reached for his opponent rather than moving his feet to engage the defender. The troubling aspect of this observation is that it occurred on Christmas Eve as well as Labor Day weekend last year.
- Distancing himself from the competition: In this case, his teammates. Rudolph is the unquestioned starter. Both Joseph Fauria (inexperience) and Ragone (injury) are likely a full season from challenging Rudolph for his first team status. That type of security doesn't always translate to individual improvement from the main man so it will be incumbent upon Rudolph to challenge himself each week.
- Finish the play: Rudolph is willing to sacrifice his body both with the ball in the air and when fighting for extra yards. But he, along with the rest of the members of the Irish running game, struggled last season when finishing blocks. An extra half-second of sacrifice at the tail end of each blocking assignment/collision would go a long way toward turning around the 2nd worst rushing attack in school history.