In the beginning there was Dave Casper…Casper begat MacAfee; MacAfee begat Hunter; Hunter begat Bavaro; Bavaro begat Heck (who beefed up quite a bit passing the torch to Williams); Williams begat Brown; Brown begat Smith (who offered free rides to the end zone); Smith begat McBride, Chryplewicz and Caretta (underrated, by the way); whose legacy was continued by O'Leary and Holloway; Fasano, Carlson, and today, Kyle Rudolph.
Penn State has staked its claim to the linebacker; USC to the tailback; Nebraska to the offensive lineman; Miami to the defensive tackle; and for four decades, Notre Dame to the tight end (or you could go back to the 40s and reasonably add Heisman Trophy winner Leon Hart).
If sophomore tight end Joseph Fauria was asked to compete against that legacy this fall it would be a daunting task. But considering the fact that his classmate and incumbent at the position was a Freshman All-American selection last season (and is targeted for higher honors in the coming years) you can begin to understand why the unproven Fauria has quite a bit of work in front of him to simply maintain a spot in the '09 rotation, much less worry about the unit's storied history.
Add talented (redshirt) junior Mike Ragone to the mix – he of the 2008 pre-injury starter's role – and you can further see why Fauria must continue to improve daily through next January.
At first blush the role of the second tight end in the Irish offense is an enviable position: head coach Charlie Weis takes advantage of the position's strengths and favors the role of tight end as much as any coach, at any level, in the country. He'll continue to utilize two tight ends in a variety of formations and offensive sets. But a deeper look at the '09 roster uncovers still more competition for Fauria's playing time. Rudolph will continue to be a featured player in the passing game. Wide receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd are the team's best players. Empty backfields are used sparingly, so the presence of Allen/Hughes/Aldridge/Gray/Wood is all but assured for each snap.
Joseph Fauria isn't simply competing with Ragone for the final spot on the field among the skill position candidates, but with the myriad options presented to his head coach and play-caller. He must prove his presence as a second tight end is a better fit for the offense than that of a third dangerous receiver (Kamara) or slot presence (Parris) or fullback/split back (Aldridge) or talented classmate (Goodman/Walker). It's not merely a matter of who's the second best tight end, rather, who's the fifth best offensive player – the best combination of blocker and offensive threat. The player that will challenge opposing defenses, create mismatches, and best allow the stars around him to carry the load.
It will be a daily battle for Fauria – a situation embraced by Irish fans as the program's skill position depth has reached its apex over the last 15 years.
The Case for FauriaListed at 6'8" 245 pounds (that should be considered a low estimate at this point), Fauria could grow into a force to be reckoned with in 2010. He's a fantastic athlete and, much more importantly for '09, appeared to be the position's best blocker during the spring. Prior to his late-September suspension, transferred tight end Will Yeatman was light years ahead of Rudolph as a blocker, both at the point of attack and when the two were asked to pick up a defender in space. Rudolph will of course improve with time, technique, and experience, but there's a definite need for what Weis refers to as the "swing' tight end. It's in this role that Fauria should make his greatest contribution to the '09 offense. The swing tight end must be versatile enough to serve as a sixth lineman at the point of attack; be a reliable guardian in occasional pass protection, and still be a viable pass-catching threat.
We can project Fauria's athleticism to game action (and he certainly appeared tough enough for the rigors of the position in the spring) but what we don't know is likely what will determine his early '09 playing time: if he'll hold a block for that extra half-second, if he'll recover when initially beaten, or if his football acumen and ability to find holes in a zone match his obvious physical tools.
There's a continued legacy to which Fauria can aspire at Tight End U, but the first step toward that lofty goal is to bury a defender on a 1st Quarter wham block on September 5. That may appear to be a baby step, but it could also be a telling moment for an Irish running game still learning to walk.