The recent suspension and subsequent transfer of sophomore TE Joseph Fauria has, for the fourth consecutive season, weakened the team's depth at a position that requires two highly functional players each week. The '09 Irish however, still have this luxury heading into fall camp with sophomore and 13-game returning starter Kyle Rudolph, and junior (redshirt sophomore) Mike Ragone, who will be 12 months removed from knee surgery when the '09 season begins. Below is a look at the tight end unit, a group that, barring injury, could make a major impact this fall.
Note: These rankings will be updated at the end of August and weekly throughout the season.
Irish Eyes Pre-Camp Rank: No. 7 behind the team's WR, DB, Kick/Punt Coverage teams, QB, RB, and LB.
Pre-season National Acclaim: Kyle Rudolph and the Irish receivers were named by Athlon as the nation's second best WR/TE group. Despite missing all of last season and producing just one catch in 2007, Mike Ragone is ranked as Phil Steele's No. 19 draft eligible tight end (as a true sophomore, Rudolph is not eligible for the NFL Draft).
Starter: Sophomore Kyle Rudolph
Backup: Junior (redshirt sophomore) Mike Ragone
Veteran Depth: Senior walk-on Bobby Burger (highlighted below). Walk-on senior (6'3" 232-pound) Paul Kuppich
Highest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: No. 5. If Rudolph remains healthy for 13 weeks the Irish will receive production from the position, at least in the passing game. A No. 5 ranking would also be contingent upon backup Mike Ragone rounding into shape over the course of the season and emerging as a legitimate downfield threat. Likewise, the addition of walk-on Bobby Burger and his assumed impact on the running game would rank as an immediate improvement over the final eight games of last season.
Lowest Team Ranking (of the 11 Units) I Can Fathom at Season's End: No. 11. With Ragone and Burger still question marks, the TE position is a Kyle Rudolph injury away from becoming a major weakness this fall.
Strengths: Kyle Rudolph is the best sophomore tight end in the nation…that's a nice start. He was thrown to the wolves last season (a true freshman starting and playing nearly every meaningful snap is not a recipe for tight end success at this level) and fared well, but it's the near-certainty of improvement for Rudolph that excites Irish fans. He's a top-tier downfield threat; a big body in the red zone; possesses tremendous hands and body control, and is still growing at 6'6" 260 lbs.
Ragone's size/speed ratio, fluid routes, and "special" hands have already become part of recruiting, practice, and campus lore. Now he just has to stay on the football field. The best-case scenario to quicken Ragone's development and emergence as a legitimate football player rather than fan-base football legend would be a first-quarter catch, subsequent big hit, and nonchalant jog back to the huddle from Ragone vs. Nevada on September 5.
Burger played on the Dayton Flyers defensive line before transferring to Notre Dame and eventually winning a walk-on spot with the squad. A college DL (and high school fullback) that stands at 6'3" 245 pounds and was singled out by Charlie Weis ("I'm not going to be afraid to play this kid now…") in the spring lends additional hope that the position will be one of strength in '09.
Weaknesses: Aside from the obvious depth issue, the pass-catching duo of Rudolph and Ragone have much to prove in the running game. Rudolph struggled mightily both at the point of attack in short-yardage situations and (especially) as the occasional pass-blocker for Jimmy Clausen last season. While it would be a major surprise if Rudolph isn't a much more complete tight end this season, its unlikely that the still-developing sophomore will emerge as an accomplished run blocker and pass protector until 2010-11.
In addition to the health of his knee, Mike Ragone will likely be a bit rusty as a football player after missing his senior season (2006) of high school while recovering from knee surgery; seeing limited playing time (13:34, mainly on special teams where he recorded six tackles) as a freshman (2007); and missing all of last season.
Burger's impact, at this point, is complete speculation as would be the possible addition of one of the freshman, Tyler Eifert or, less likely, Jake Golic into the fold this fall.
Year-End Prediction and Ranking: The courtesy phrase "Be well" applies to this thin but promising position group. The presence of Kyle Rudolph and the promise of his development ranks as one of the most intriguing aspects of the '09 Irish offense. After one season, he appears further along as a receiver than were his predecessors (and current NFL starters) Anthony Fasano and John Carlson. Rudolph has a legitimate chance to enter 2010 as the nation's No. 1 ranked tight end and tight end prospect, and he probably ranks near the bottom of the list of concerns for the Irish coaching staff and fan base this year. Ragone will likely look better in spurts (and after the bye week/prior to bowl season) and should be much better in a possible January Bowl than when the Irish take the field vs. Nevada. His weekly recovery from game action will be a concern (depending on his work load) and he won't consistently possess his top tier speed just one season removed from ACL surgery. That's two talented tight ends that will be better in 2010 than this fall.
The group's ability to hold up as blockers (which should be pointed out, is one-half of the tight ends' job requirement) is a legitimate concern, as is the fact that Ragone has played under 14 minutes of football since the end 2005. But approaching the '09 season with cautious optimism short-changes this position group. Talent is in abundance; fearing injury (as a fan base) is pointless in football; and there are about 115 Bowl Subdivision programs that would trade its lot of tight ends with Notre Dame's without hesitation. There are plenty of holes still to be filled on this football team, but regarding the tight ends…I'll take my chances.
Tight End Attrition (2006 – Present):
- Joey Hiben: In the spring semester of 2006, Hiben quit the Irish football team to concentrate on his studies and the demanding schedule of an Architecture major. He eventually transferred to Minnesota where he walked-on to the football team prior to the 2007 season.
- Konrad Reuland: Transferred to a junior college during the 2007 season and is currently a member of the Stanford Cardinal.
- Mike Ragone: Slated to start, Ragone tore his ACL in August 2008 and was shelved for the season. He's returned to action and is currently the team's No. 2 TE with three seasons of eligibility remaining.
- Will Yeatman: Two disciplinary issues over the span of 10 months led to his in-season suspension last October. Yeatman transferred to Maryland and is a member of the Terrapins lacrosse team.
- Joseph Fauria: Fauria did not enroll for the 2009 summer semester due to "personal reasons" and subsequently announced he would not return to the University in the spring. He reportedly offered a verbal commitment to UCLA and will be eligible to play in 2010.