August camp guarantees that few starting spots are set in stone, but one notable exception is at tight end, home of early-2009 hero and future first-round NFL Draft pick Kyle Rudolph.
When Coach Kelly committed to lead the football program last December, he brought his belief in the spread offense in tow, and though the set is not known for its affinity for the tight end, few Irish fans blinked: Kyle Rudolph was going to be on the field and remain a focal point of the offense.
"I was aware of how Coach Kelly used the tight end, simply from being from Cincinnati; he recruited me to go to Cincinnati and I followed them," Rudolph offered Monday.
"It all boils down to creating mismatches. With Coach Weis, we would bring in multiple tight ends; two or three to create mismatches. Now we may only have one on the field or maybe two, but you're still trying to create mismatches whether it's on a safety or linebacker."
With the possible exception of classmate Michael Floyd, Rudolph is the team's best, most dangerous, and difficult to defend skill position player. He improved greatly as a blocker last season after a spotty freshman effort and, considering his frame (if Rudolph's not the most imposing player on the team in pads, I'd like to meet his competition), should hone that skill set again in 2010.
But it's the 6'6" 265-pound junior's athleticism that will once again land the Cincinnati Elder product a spot on late-night highlight shows next fall.
"Being kind of labeled as a pass-catching tight end (now) has its advantages. I'm out (detached from the line of scrimmage) a little more (than last season) and am just able to get out and run around."
As for any hints toward his early alignment in the new offense, Rudolph stated it's been roughly "half and half."
"Towards the beginning of the spring I did a lot more of the flex stuff as a precaution but as time moved on I really didn't have a problem with (the shoulder) so I got more involved with the inside, the running game, stuff like that."
Saturday Debut?Rudolph was a leading candidate for team MVP honors through five games last season, catching 21 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns, the latter two scores serving as game-winning and game-tying scores at Purdue and vs. Washington respectively.
Rudolph caught just 12 passes (and no touchdowns) in the team's next four contests (USC, BC, Washington State, and Navy) before losing the bulk of November to a shoulder injury suffered vs. the Midshipmen.
Though he's still restricted after shoulder surgery, Rudolph admits he'd like to mix it up a bit in Saturday's annual Blue Gold Game.
"I think it's just another time to strap it up in a game situation," Rudolph said of what many fans and media consider a glorified scrimmage. "You can practice all you want with team periods and stuff like that but when it comes to a game situation and the blood starts flowing a little bit more, the excitement really builds, and I think getting that excitement going against the defense will be good for us.
"It's different with all of the fans in the stands. I'll definitely be excited. Hopefully I can get out there."
Position OverviewRudolph continues to spend the occasional team session or scrimmage series as an observer, a precautionary measure according to Brian Kelly. He spent the bulk of Saturday's scrimmage on the sidelines, though not until he worked over the Irish goal line defense, most notably on a 10-yard post pattern to the back of the end zone that resulted in a leaping TD grab over Manti Te'o.
Erring on the side of caution has allowed Rudolph a chance to observe his understudies.
"They're doing well," Rudolph said when asked specifically about sophomores Tyler Eifert and Jake Golic. "Tyler and Jake give it everything they have every time they go in there. They're learning the offense and they're getting more and more comfortable with responsibilities that we have and they're going to continue to make progress every day because they work hard."
Tight ends coach Mike Denbrock has a talented, albeit tiered group to work with and is likewise pleased with the early impression provided by his younger pupils.
"Both of those guys (Eifert and Golic) in particular came into the spring without a lot of previous opportunities," Denbrock explained. "They'd been working on the (scout) team a year ago, showing the opponents' offensive sets so they've really done a nice job from of understanding where they fit, how they fit, and what we expect of them.
"I think they've progressed through the spring," Denbrock continued. "There are definitely things they need to continue to develop like their overall strength and making themselves complete players at the tight end position. But it's very (encouraging) what they've brought to the offense. They haven't gotten as many reps as I'd like to give them, but when they are in there they understand what we're doing and they do good things."
Eifert made an early splash last season before being shut down due to a potentially career-ending back injury (bulging disc). He was lauded by Weis in August and earned Game One playing time in the blowout of Nevada.
The sophomore from nearby Fort Wayne is glad to be back in the fold, fighting for a spot on the field.
"We need to get better at retaining what we learn." Eifert noted. "We're learning a lot but we need to stay in our playbooks and get the offense down."
As for his current role, Eifert, like the majority of the roster, simply continues to fight every day.
"I'm just pushing for playing time, trying to get on the field and trying to make the other guys better. It's tough to tell," he continued, "we don't have a depth chart, but I'll come out here and compete every day and we'll see what happens."
Eifert added he's full go though a bit limited in terms of certain lifts/weight ratios, a situation he'll have for the rest of his career as he works at his craft. That hasn't stopped him from searching for ways to improve and earn reps vs. three upperclassmen and his physical classmate.
"I've learned blocking (techniques)," Eifert said of his greatest improvement since his initial training camp last August "I don't know if I've gotten better as a blocker but I've learned some techniques for undersized players that you have to use. I need to stay in the weight room to improve on that."
As for the increased emphasis on a detached tight end in the spread, Eifert admitted an affinity for the job requirements (I compared the role to that of a bigger slot receiver with blocking responsibilities).
"I'm very comfortable with that. In high school I wasn't attached much so I'm really comfortable with (getting downfield into patterns)."
Silver LiningThough Rudolph's spring limitations hurt the offense's overall performance in scrimmage situations, his presence on the sideline has afforded the competition a chance to improve and absorb an unfamiliar playbook.
"It really has; it's helped (Mike Ragone) and Bobby Burger and Tyler Eifert," Denbrock stated of Rudolph's occasional restriction. Eifert's gotten some of those reps as well (as Ragone). Tyler in particular has made some nice strides – he's a big athletic kid. Jake Golic has continued to improve and has a role on this football team even in the fall, whether that's offensively, special teams, whatever, I think he'll contribute."
(Burger is expected to be used largely in a fullback/H-Back role, assuming good health for the rest of the unit).
While Rudolph is the key, the leader for TE No. 2 has reemerged this spring. From an outsider's perspective, Mike Ragone is the clear-cut No. 2 heading into Saturday's Blue Gold Game.
"When Kyle's not in there there's obviously a major void in our offense. The good news is Mike Ragone has done a nice job of filling that void when called upon."
(Ragone caught a diving touchdown in live goal line action last Wednesday.)
Like the rest of the offense, Denbrock's position group remains in the installation phase.
"Hopefully we'll get a little more of the playbook in," Denbrock offered as a final practice week goal. "I think offensively more than anything, we're struggling right now searching for some consistency. It happens that way sometimes. The old adage is that the defense (starts ahead) of the offense, but we don't ever want to accept that as our fate.
"I think we've had a chance to introduce them a little to the playbook and get them a knowledge base to carry over into the summer and into the fall, and hopefully as this week moves along, the things we're most familiar with – the basis of our offense – will be (sharper) and we'll be more consistent in what we do Saturday."
With plenty of work remaining, Denbrock is nonetheless excited about the position's prospects for 2010.
"The versatility of our version of the spread is we're going to be able to run the football and be physical. With our tight ends and some of the personnel that we have, we'll be able to create some matchups defensively that are a real problem in the passing game."