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Thrust into starting role, Rudolph thriving

Dan Murphy | Friday, November 14, 2008

This year’s Notre Dame team is characterized by its talented and promising youth. Nowhere is that more true than at the tight end position.

True freshman Kyle Rudolph has stepped up for the Irish by making a big contribution to the offense as essentially the team’s only tight end.

Rudolph jumped into the lead role right out of the gates when projected starter Mike Ragone announced he would be getting season-ending surgery in late August. Ragone partially tore his ACL running routes during the summer and decided he wouldn’t be able to play on it all year. Rudolph immediately jumped to the top of the depth chart.

“That played a big role in adjusting to the game a lot sooner,” Rudolph said. “You are going against, especially late in camp, the [first team defense] all the time. Those are the kind of guys you are going to be seeing on Saturdays.”

A few weeks later, Notre Dame lost its only other tight end when Will Yeatman was suspended for the remainder of the season. Rudolph said he didn’t mind not having a veteran shoulder to lean on.

“[Tight ends] coach [Bernie] Parmalee is there, he takes care of me if I have questions. When we’re in the film room the older guys are still there helping me and critiquing me with technique. They’re still around even if they’re not on the practice field,” he said.

Rudolph jumped right into the action as the only freshman in the starting line-up, picking up a five-yard catch against San Diego State in the season opener.

Since then, Rudolph has continued to consistently contribute with 20 catches and two touchdowns through his first nine collegiate games. His first trip to the end zone came week four against Purdue in the third quarter. He followed that up with another one the following week against Stanford.

“I wouldn’t say that I’m surprised, it’s more excitement. I’m glad that I could do something and contribute to the team. That was my goal coming in,” Rudolph said.

The Irish have gotten some major contributions from their underclassmen in the passing game so far this season. Five of the team’s top six receivers are freshmen and sophomore – senior David Grimes is the only veteran in the group. Rudolph is currently one catch behind Grimes for fifth overall.

Rudolph said the added pressure of a pass-heavy offense wasn’t intimidating for him or any of his teammates – they embraced it.

“For us being a receiving corps, when we throw the ball a lot that’s exciting. But being a tight end, running the ball is great too. You get the best of both worlds,” Rudolph said.

During his days at Elder High School in Cincinnati, where he was named the No. 1 tight end prospect in the country, Rudolph split out to play wide receiver regularly. He said the toughest part of adjusting to the college game was run blocking.

“Most of the [defensive opposition] are bigger than I am, so for me it’s not a real big block. Good technique and good fundamentals get the job done,” he said.

In the past few weeks, Rudolph said he felt he was making big strides with his blocking. He no longer has to think about where his head and hands are placed; it is starting to become natural for him.

Blocking aside, the hardest thing Rudolph has had to adjust to in the past few months has been the heavy workload that comes along with being a college football player.

“In high school you have practice for a couple hours a day and that’s all you have. Then you get here and it’s meeting for a couple hours, practice for a few hours, then watching film for a little while and lifting,” he said.

But for the 6-foot-6, 252-pounder, it’s all worth it on Saturdays. Rudolph said game days make him feel like he is back in high school.

“You have everybody at your games and you see everybody after the game. I always go back to the tailgate after the games and hang out with my family for the rest of the night,” he said.

The freshman said he normally draws a pretty big crowd of relatives at each game – usually 15 or more – with both his parents coming from large, supportive families.

“Even if they don’t get into the game they’ll watch it somewhere. My family loves being around up here. They love the atmosphere.”