1991-2007: Draft Picks AplentyDerek Brown finished his Irish career with 43 wins, three January 1 bowl victories in four appearances, and a National Title prior to his first-round selection by the Giants in the 1991 NFL Draft. He was followed by multi-talented Irv Smith, another first-round selection and part of the program's star-studded draft class of 1993 (a year in which four Irish players were selected among the draft's first 20 picks and nine graduates were drafted overall).
Smith was succeeded by Oscar McBride, who caught on with the Arizona Cardinals in 1995-96 and Pete Chryplewicz, who led the Irish in touchdown receptions in 1996 (Chryplewicz snared four touchdown passes, still the highest total at the position since MacAfee's six in 1977.) Chryplewicz played three seasons with the Detroit Lions from 1997-99 as well as a stint with the Oakland Raiders in 2001.
Dan O'Leary (Bills, Giants, and Steelers) and Jabari Holloway (Patriots and Texans) followed Chryplewicz as starters for the Irish and members of the NFL fraternity.
One of the school's most unlikely NFL success stories belongs to John Owens, who played for the Irish from 1998-2001 and was selected in the fifth-round of the NFL Draft despite catching only five passes in his senior season. Owens has played for eight years and is a current teammate of former Irish star John Carlson (2004-07) in Seattle.
Between Owens and Carlson were Gary Godsey (see Part I) and Billy Palmer, who played one year for the Washington Redskins. Palmer is the younger brother of current ESPN analyst and former New York Giants QB, Jesse Palmer.
A Legacy in Good HandsFor at least one if not two more seasons, the Notre Dame program is fortunate to have Kyle Rudolph ably manning the position. The sophomore's impact on the 2009 season was first felt in September with a game-winning touchdown reception at Purdue, and again one-week later with a late-game go-ahead score vs. Washington, a game the Irish won in overtime.
In his second season, Rudolph is the unquestioned leader of his position group: a unit flooded with developing veteran and younger talent.
"There's competitive desire," noted junior tight end Mike Ragone of the position and his teammates.
Ragone singled out former walk-on and senior-to-be Bobby Burger as a player that strengthens the position with his daily approach.
"Bobby Burger: He works really hard," said Ragone of the former Dayton Flyers DE.
"He has a motor like no other and a passion for the game like no other – it just makes the whole tight end situation very competitive. You know your job is not (set) and that you have to work every day to keep up."
Like Ragone, Burger is happy to have a chance to compete.
"It's ingrained at all times," Burger answered when told of his teammates' view of him as a player that gives 100 percent at all times. "I love the game; I'm really passionate about the game, and every play I'm just trying to sell out because you never know how good you're going to be until you give everything you have on every play."
Burger, a 1st semester senior for the spring of 2010, will return for his final college season next fall.
"I try to be versatile," Burger said during the season. "My goal is to get on the field whenever I can and try to help the team. I know all the positions, so I'm just going to go out there and block somebody and help the team win."
His father, Bob Burger, was on the 1977 national championship team at Notre Dame and played offensive guard for the Irish from 1978-80.
The Next GenerationWith good health, Rudolph will take his act to the NFL most likely after the 2011 football season. Waiting in the wings are Tyler Eifert and Jake Golic, both of whom will be sophomores next season. Eifert suffered a back injury in the fall though he should rejoin the Irish for spring practice.
Golic, a player who needed a year of physical growth before contending for a spot in the rotation, offered one promising thought for Irish fans who consistently yearn to watch a physical on-field product.
"I feel like I love to hit," Golic said in August. "I've been blessed with the ability to learn on special teams and I'm trying to take advantage of those."
As for Golic's role model at the position?
"Kyle Rudolph is an absolute stud. I'd like to have his physical ability. His moves, his agility…I'd just like to be Kyle Rudolph, basically."
As the Brian Kelly era of Notre Dame football approaches, a four-decade legacy of success continues at Tight End U.
Note: Excerpts of the column above appeared in the December issue of IrishEyes magazine. Special thanks to Blue and Gold senior editor Lou Somogyi for information regarding former Irish stars Dean Masztak and Mike Creaney.