On a team full of offensive stars, you'd be hard-pressed to find a player not named Clausen who meant more to Notre Dame during its 4-1 September start last season than did Rudolph.
But Game Six brought a USC pass rush that demanded he lend a hand to the team's overmatched offensive line in pass protection; Week Six, a disciplined BC defense that slowed the Irish offense, its Cover 2 defense taking away QB Jimmy Clausen's inside-the-hash options. Rudolph's early-season run toward All America status had hit a snag...at the same juncture his freshman season of '08 began to putter toward an unspectacular finish.
A shoulder injury kept him out of the majority of Notre Dame's four-game November swoon. The losses not coincidental; the suddenly inconsistent offense easily explained: the '09 offense needed Rudolph; the '10 version will even more.
Rudolph's 2010 OutlookEntering his junior season, Rudolph has played the role of hero in two thrilling victories and was a 50/50 official's call away from another (described below). He's already advanced into the top 10 in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns for his position in program history and he's earned first-team pre-season All-America status from nearly ever national publication.
And like the rest of his .500-saddled teammates, he's barely made a dent in the season's second half. Each of his five career touchdowns have occurred before the conclusion of Game Five and that aspect of football - finishing strong - is where Rudolph will likely improve the most as an upperclassmen.
As a true freshman starter in the trenches in '08, it was not unexpected that Rudolph would hit the proverbial wall. Last season, a Week Nine injury and a flawed team contributed to his decline.
2010 brings the purported aid of respected Strength & Conditioning coach Paul Longo; another year of maturity as an athlete and what I assume is complete confidence in his abilities and in his teammates. Already on the short list of the nation's best at his position, noticeable improvement from the junior would mark an ominous sign for 13 upcoming opponents.
Detached from the Action: Rudolph's role in the spread offense will generally be that of a pass-catcher offset (detached) from the line of scrimmage; akin to a second slot receiver or pass target lined up between the slot and offensive tackle. He improved greatly as a blocker last season (understandably struggling in '08 as a freshman vs. 22-year old men) but now the accepted weaker aspect of his game will become less relevant.
Blocking assignments remain, but crack-backs vs. opposing defensive ends and assignments vs. a linebacker or safety are less taxing for a tight end (plus those defenders will have to account for a Rudolph chip-and-release into a pass pattern rather than just attacking Rudolph from the snap).
Rudolph runs well after the catch and has little problem maintaining his focus in heavy traffic. He'll win the majority of jump balls and provides first-time starter Dayne Crist with the ultimate security blanket and an easy-to-follow thought process for the new QB when initial patterns break down: Escape pocket, look for the closest 6'6" 265-pound beast with hands the size of a mid-sized sedan, release pass in vicinity.
Between Rudolph and classmate Michael Floyd, third-down conversions and red zone opportunities should be the least of the offense's troubles this fall. (Though restricted by off-season shoulder surgery, Rudolph dominated red zone scrimmages in late April; once leaping well above Manti Te'o's otherwise perfect coverage to catch the ball at goal post level for the score.)
More important, the likelihood of a third, not yet proven pass catcher emerging alongside the nation's best should be expected. (If you can't get open vs. an opponent's second tier cover men in solo coverage, you don't belong in the Blue and Gold.) And if candidate A or B doesn't perform, head coach Brian Kelly will tap into a talented young receiving corps to find an acceptable compliment for the All-American tandem.
A Starring Role: Some athletes hide from it; others merely accept it as a function of experience; the rare few embrace it and perform through intense scrutiny to exceed expectations.
Kyle Rudolph represents that final, special category. The 2010 team features four high-profile players that every fan recognizes: Crist, Floyd, Te'o and Rudolph. Only the latter was not singled out by the new regime as a player that needed drastic improvement. Only Rudolph appeared to remain above the fray during Kelly's post-practice evaluations.
He's the clear cut leader at a position Kelly noted "will not come off the field." And he's among the small sampling of Irish players of which fans, media and coaches have no doubt regarding his ability to perform through the New Year. (Floyd could be another, though injury concerns remain.)
Barring injury, Rudolph will rank as the 2010 team leader and potential team MVP.
Rudolph at a glance:
- 2008: 29 receptions, 340 yards and 2 TD
- 2009: 33 receptions, 364 yards and 3 TD
Rudolph at his best in 2009
- Nevada: Kicked of the Irish season with a leaping grab of a 3rd and 16 skinny post pattern toss from Jimmy Clausen for the team's first touchdown of the year.
- Michigan State: Recorded career highs with six receptions for 95 yards including a 52-yard catch-and-run on a sideline check down throw from a scrambling Clausen. Was named tight end of the week by the Mackey Foundation for his efforts.
- Purdue: Asked for and received the game-winning touchdown pass from Jimmy Clausen, a quick out-route from the left slot on 4th and Goal from the Boilermakers 2-yard line with under 30 seconds remaining. Rudolph finished with four receptions for 52 yards with each of his four grabs resulting in a first down or touchdown.
- Washington: Lined up wide right and caught a 16-yard fade route from Clausen for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:22 remaining (30-27 Irish). Rudolph added a 30-yard catch earlier in the contest, his sixth grab of 16 yards or more in the season's first five games (not including a 74-yard catch and run nullified by an off-the-ball penalty.
Rudolph's moments to forget from 2009
- USC: Fought Trojans cornerback T.J. Bryant for a leaping grab in the right side of the end zone and what appeared to be the game-tying touchdown but Rudolph's knee landed out of bounds just as he secured the football with one hand. The 50/50 call went against the Irish and was upheld by the replay official (who was right to uphold the call, but likely would have done the same had it been ruled a touchdown on the field). The catch would have marked the third consecutive contest in which Rudolph scored a winning, go-ahead, or tying touchdown in the final Irish possession.
- Michigan: Had a 74-yard gain called back due to an incorrect holding call vs. senior right tackle Sam Young. Instead of 1st and Goal at the Wolverine's 6-yard line, the ball came back to the Notre Dame 9 and the Irish punted three plays later.
- Boston College: Caught just one of five passes thrown in his direction with four batted down by Eagles defenders including two by freshman linebacker Luke Kuechly, the latter on a 3rd and 8 pass that would have sealed the victory for the Irish.
- Navy: Injured his shoulder on the Irish sideline following a 14-yard reception in the 3rd Quarter. Rudolph missed the next two contests and was ineffective in his premature return at Stanford in the season-finale.