How often do you think he's been asked the question?
After this week's sobering news that fellow backup tight end Joseph Fauria would not be with the Irish football team in the fall, how often did Mike Ragone receive a text or voicemail, or stop to answer a well-wishing student or fan with the same question: "How's the knee?"
That's the question the Irish coaching staff will pose to Ragone throughout fall camp and into September. And it's the question for which Ragone will likely have an ever-changing answer through the next six months as he recovers from an August 2007 knee injury.
At the end of Spring Practice in April, head coach Charlie Weis expressed optimism at the sudden resurgence of depth at the tight end position.
"At the end of the day, you go from one that can play to three or four that you can put on the field, it gives you a lot more flexibility."
The competition for two featured tight end roles is a welcomed change from (most of) 2008 when freshman Kyle Rudolph was the team's only option (Weis eventually turned to talented backup guard/tackle Trevor Robinson to act as his second tight end when necessary). Rudolph of course, was outstanding as a pass-catching option as a freshman, but he understandably struggled over the course of 13 games as a blocker at the point of attack and when asked to pick-up an outside rusher headed for Jimmy Clausen.
The development of Fauria in the spring and return of a somewhat limited Ragone had all signs pointing up for a young and talented trio of tight ends. The trio is now a duo, albeit one with an impressive pedigree (Rudolph was the nation's No. 1 ranked tight end in 2008 and Ragone was No. 3 in 2007). One dilemma facing the coaching staff is that the duo's collective strengths are similar at this point in their careers. Both have excellent hands, the speed and size to break free from the jam and get downfield, and the natural ability to adjust to the ball in the air. In other words, the skills that fans notice, linebackers dread, and offensive coordinators can use to create a major matchup advantage.
Neither, however, has proven viable as a blocker at the position, and neither is the prototype "swing" tight end, or motion tight end that acts as a sixth lineman or lead blocker in Weis' version of the power running game (Note: Transfer and current walk-on tight end Bobby Burger might be, but we'll explore that possibility at a later date).
Ragone's Season Outlook:Ragone was reportedly a bit hesitant during the early stages of Spring Practice. It's likewise been reported he began to show signs of comfort with his surgically repaired knee, and though he seemed to lack his pre-injury downfield explosion in the Blue-Gold game, it's important to note that he was just eight months removed from surgery at point in his recovery.
Ragone presents an interesting option for the coaching staff: a second tight end that can beat most linebackers (and plenty of safeties) in one-on-one situations. Both Ragone and Rudolph have the frame and skill set to destroy zone coverages and more importantly, have a pair of All American wide receiver candidates on the outside to ease their burden on third down.
The Ragone option, of course, remains a theory on paper. Its one that traditionally has not been explored by the Weis regime – a four-year tenure touted for tight end production...largely from the starter. Some statistics lie, of course, but I'll let you be the judge regarding the following: In his four seasons at the helm, the highest reception total for a backup tight end in Charlie Weis' offense is…nine. Marcus Freeman grabbed nine passes in 2006 (two for touchdowns). John Carlson totaled seven behind Anthony Fasano in 2005; Will Yeatman just six behind Carlson in 2007; and Yeatman had two grabs (for six yards) in three games backing up Kyle Rudolph last season.
In fact, the highest reception total by a backup tight end at Notre Dame this decade occurred in 2003, when converted quarterback Jared Clark caught 15 passes for 142 yards (Fasano paced the position with 18 grabs for what was a terrible passing attack).
What then, can we expect from a healthy Ragone? He's not more talented than was Carlson (as the backup in '05) and he's less experienced than was Freeman in '06. I believe his junior season (Ragone has three more years of eligibility) will afford the Irish offense three luxuries:
- Reliable Hands in the Red Zone: The Irish power attack has struggled inside the five-yard line (and outside the five-yard line, to be frank) over the last two seasons. The tandem of Rudolph and Ragone will be difficult to defend for any defenses' goal line personnel. A two tight end presence near the goal naturally threatens the defense with the run, but with Ragone and Rudolph, it actually poses more danger via the pass.
- Zone Buster: A defense's third-and-short (or medium) yardage zone blitz, and its third-and-long Cover Two schemes suddenly play into the hands of Notre Dame's two-tight end personnel grouping. Ragone and Rudolph have the size and soft hands to settle in open spaces and receive any "hot read" bullet offered from Jimmy Clausen. Likewise, opposing linebackers asked to drop into the middle of a Cover 2 zone will have their hands full with either tight end option they encounter.
- Regain the Seam Route: Longtime Irish fans (those that remember 2006) might recall John Carlson dominating Penn State (and future NFL'er Dan Connor) down the seam of the Nittany Lions' defense in the 41-17 thrashing of Paterno's gang. That route was absent from the Irish offense in '07 and for the final six games of '08 (Rudolph brought the weapon back in the Bowl Game). Ragone, above all else, has shown he can get downfield and go get the football. He and Rudolph should challenge opposing linebackers on the route for 13 games this season.
On paper, Ragone presents Charlie Weis and the Irish coaching staff with an intriguing option in two tight end sets. But its his on-field ability to hold up as a blocker that will ultimately determine if these theories become a reality in '09.