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IrishEyes kicks off its pre-season unit rankings with the squad's best position group.

This is the first in a two-week series ranking the team's 12 major positional groups. With the change in defensive philosophy (and addition of an outside linebacker coach) we've decided to break the linebackers into two categories: outside and inside 'backers. And unlike most pre-season publications, have separated the tight ends from the team's wide receivers.

Last summer I projected the team's 11 main position groups, ranked 1-11, as follows: WR, DB, kick/punt coverage, QB, RB, LB, TE, Return, field goal unit, OL, DL

By the end of the 2009 season, those rankings were adjusted (1-11): QB, WR, field goal unit, TE, RB, OL, kick/punt return, DL, LB, DB, kick/punt coverage.

There were hits and misses; major surprises and a few that played out according to their summer projection. This year, our summer rankings will be updated prior to the opener on September 4 then again on a monthly basis through the end of the season.

Each position is ranked according to my view of the group entering the 2010 season. I've accounted for 2009 performance, apparent spring improvement, developed and perceived depth, and my own projection for each in 2010 – with an emphasis on the starters – as the determining factors.

Let's put off the inevitable and begin with the group at the top of the list.

Tight Ends

  • IrishEyes' 2010 Pre-Camp Rank: No. 1
  • (2009 Pre-Season Ranking): No. 7 (due to the loss of Joseph Fauria)
  • (2009 Post-Season Ranking): No. 4 (due largely to the unit's sterling performance prior to November)
  • Highest 2010 ranking I can envision at season's end: Right here
  • Lowest 2010 ranking I can envision at season's end: Significantly lower if Kyle Rudolph suffers a major injury.
  • Pre-season National Acclaim: Kyle Rudolph has dominated pre-season All-America polls, earning first team honors from each of the four main pre-season annuals: Lindy's, the Sporting News, Phil Steele, and Athlon's. Lindy's ranked the Irish tight end/wide receivers unit as the nation's best while Steele placed the same grouping at No. 7 overall. As well, Mike Ragone is Steele's 31st ranked tight end entering 2010.

Position Coach: Mike Denbrock – In his second stint with the program (Denbrock coached offensive tackles and tight ends from 2002-04), Denbrock enters his 25th season as an assistant coach, 23 of which were spent in the collegiate ranks. Denbrock also served under head coach Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State from 1992-98.

Starter: Junior Kyle Rudolph – 6'6" 265 pounds (23 games/22 starts, 62 receptions for 704 yards, 5 touchdowns).

Key Backup: Senior Mike Ragone – 6'4" 250 pounds (23 games/6 starts, 7 receptions for 67 yards, 101 special teams appearances last season).

Veteran Depth: Senior Bobby Burger – 6'2" 245 pounds (10 games/2 starts, 2 receptions for 10 yards, 83 special teams appearances last season). Sophomore Tyler Eifert – 6'6" 240 pounds (redshirted last season). Sophomore Jake Golic – 6'4" 230 pounds (redshirted last season).

Incoming Depth: 6'5" 225-pound freshman Alex Welch. Barring injury or Welch carving a niche due to an incredible August camp, look for Welch –'s No. 4 ranked tight end in the 2010 class – to redshirt this season with a host of capable tight ends in front of him.

Quote to Note: "Ragone is a tough kid. He's going to help us, he's going to move the chains for us and do some things that allow us to get into two tight ends, as well. He's very important in terms of what we're going to be doing in the fall." – Head coach Brian Kelly.

Strengths: Rudolph was arguably the nation's best tight end last season before an early November shoulder injury vs. Navy truncated his season. He's among the top possession and red zone targets in the country and can stretch the field down the seam. As a true junior, Rudolph should finish the season as one of the top 20 skill position players in the nation.

Ragone was the group's best blocker last season and showed his wares as a pass catcher in the Blue Gold scrimmage. His chief strength may be a straight-line speed that rivals that of many wide receivers, but separate knee injuries seemed to somewhat limit his lateral movement last season. The senior has two years of eligibility remaining and appeared to emerge as the team's fourth receiving option over the course of the spring.

Listed at 6'6" 240 pounds, Tyler Eifert is not technically undersized for the position, but standing next to the lithe athlete for 10 seconds offers visual evidence that not all measurements are created equal. Nevertheless, he fits the role of detached tight end and has expressed that he's comfortable as a receiver down the seam (in Brian Kelly's spread offense, a detached tight end resembles a "slot" receiver). Eifert was spoken of quite highly by the previous staff in training camp last August. Fellow sophomore Jake Golic will likely contribute on special teams this season. Golic has a penchant for the physical but is a few levels below his cohorts as a pass catcher at this point in his career.

Senior Bobby Burger excels as a blocking fullback (he was the team's best in-space blocker last season before a mid-season neck injury). Burger could serve as a third tight end as well but will likely see the bulk of his action in short-yardage and goal line sets, paving the way for Irish runners. With experience as a high school fullback, don't be surprised to see Burger notch a surprise goal line or short-yardage carry this season.

Weaknesses: Ragone's best collegiate game to date was played in April; further, he looked awkward as a receiver last season, suffering two easy drops in five passes thrown his direction…Eifert will be forced to deal with a back injury for the rest of his career and despite obvious toughness, is not big enough to play on the line as a tight end; should Ragone go down, its not clear that Eifert is ready as a redshirt-sophomore to assume the role of the second tight end…Golic is at least a year away from being a receiving threat (more on Golic in the upcoming special teams reviews)…the aggressive Burger is in an ideal role – but should an injury befall Rudolph or Ragone in front of him, he might be out of his comfort zone as a downfield receiver (a necessity as a detached tight end)….An early-season hero as both a freshman and sophomore, Rudolph has yet to score a touchdown after Game Five of either season – he'll need to stay healthy and active for 12 contests as a true junior.

Entering August Camp: Brian Kelly has stated his tight end will "never come off the field." Whether that's Kelly's philosophy regardless of his personnel, or if it just happens to fit the 2010 Irish I'm not yet sure. Nevertheless, the Irish tight end unit has everything a position coach could desire in his six-man group:

  • An unquestioned leader and top player in junior Kyle Rudolph – it's a recipe for success when one of the nation's best players at his position also ranks among the team's hardest workers and most respected voices.
  • A veteran backup in redshirt-senior Mike Ragone – a former highly rated recruit (No. 2 tight end in 2007) that's fought through injuries and an off-field issue to put him in position to succeed as a senior.
  • A hybrid third-string player in senior Bobby Burger – a veteran that can earn field time at multiple positions (fullback, special teams, tight end) and one that's a no-nonsense, extremely intense player to set an example for three younger teammates
  • A promising young receiver in redshirt-sophomore Tyler Eifert – with four years of eligibility remaining Eifert could emerge in a pinch this season or serve a role as a possession receiver, but still has time to grow into his game thanks to veteran depth ahead of him
  • A developing young blocker in classmate Jake Golic – a player who'll likely satisfy his playing time itch on special teams and continue to add strength to compete in 2011 and beyond
  • Incoming talent in Alex Welch – barring injury to veterans, the Cincinnati (Elder) tight end prospect will serve as the ultimate "luxury item" (to borrow a phrase from the former head coach) in 2010 while learning from the nation's best at the position.
  • An aggregate 17 seasons of eligibility remaining among the unit's six competitors.

A top dog, a pair of capable veteran backups (one that could be the offense's X-factor next fall), and a trio of promising youngsters ready to compete – the Irish tight end corps ranks as the program's best unit entering August training camp. Top Stories