Football: Stepping in and stepping up
Sam Werner | Friday, September 11, 2009
How quickly things can change.
When Kyle Rudolph first set foot on the Notre Dame campus as a freshman last fall, he was the third tight end on the depth chart. By the opener against San Diego State, he was listed as the starter.
Thanks to a season-ending injury to original starter Mike Ragone and an eventual suspension of backup Will Yeatman, by the end of the season, Rudolph found himself as the only tight end on the roster with any sort of playing experience.
“My goal from the time I decided to come here was to be the number one tight end when I got here,” Rudolph said. “For it to actually work out and fall into place, I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but I was surprised with how few tight ends we did end up having.”
Irish coach Charlie Weis is known for using sets that feature multiple tight ends, and in the past has taken advantage of having players like John Carlson and Anthony Fasano on the field at the same time. Without any sort of depth at tight end, the playbook can become very limited quickly.
“We were just kind of thin and couldn’t use the tight end packages we wanted to,” Rudolph said.
Even though the role fell to him somewhat by default, Rudolph said he did what he had to do to be successful as the team’s starting tight end.
“I worked real hard to get myself where I needed to be physically, and I picked up on the offense pretty quickly,” he said.
But in addition to picking up an entirely new playbook, Rudolph also had the fairly significant matter of adjusting to college life. Freshmen have to report for summer school and take two classes in addition to offseason workouts.
“I felt like they did it the right way here,” Rudolph said. “We were able to come up in the summer and take a couple of classes and work out, so we were able to get our feet wet in the classroom and not be overwhelmed with football at the same time.”
He said the summer classes made the transition easier, so that by the time he was forced into duty against the Aztecs, balancing a full class load with football was no longer an issue.
“I felt like by that time, you had kind of adjusted to what it’s like and what you had to do to be successful in the classroom as well as on the field,” he said.
Even though Ragone couldn’t run the routes himself, Rudolph said the then-sophomore was quick to help him adjust to the Irish offense.
“Even in the summer before fall camp started, Mike [Ragone] and Will [Yeatman], they helped me tremendously during 7-on-7s,” Rudolph said. “They helped me learn the offense and get a head start learning the Xs and Os.”
The Cincinnati, Ohio, native finished last season with 29 catches for 340 yards and two touchdowns. The numbers may not jump off the page, but were pretty impressive, considering just a year earlier he was a high school basketball player helping his team upset the No. 1 team in Ohio.
Now, Rudolph is one of the elder statesmen at the tight end position, and is intent on passing down the knowledge he picked up in 2008 to this year’s freshmen, Tyler Eifert and Jake Golic.
“I try to use the experience I had last year,” Rudolph said. “A lot of times you have older guys trying to teach and it’s been a few years since they’ve been a freshman, going to study hall, and their first classes and stuff like that. For me, it was just last fall. So I remember what it’s like being in that situation, so I try and make it the best transition for them possible.”
In addition to helping the freshmen, Rudolph said being thrown into the fire last year has helped him, too.
“It definitely helped a lot having that experience,” he said. “I’ve been there before and know what to expect week to week.”
This year, one of the most popular comparisons has been to former Notre Dame tight end John Carlson.
“I can’t tell you how many professors have come back to us and said, ‘John Carlson,'” Weis said in a press conference earlier this fall. “You really can’t get a much better role model than that one. When you say John Carlson, you are giving some pretty high accolades for what kind of person [Rudolph] is.”
Carlson finished his Notre Dame career with 100 catches for 1,093 and eight touchdowns. He was selected 38th overall in the 2008 NFL Draft by Seattle. Last year, Carlson led the Seahawks with 55 receptions for 627 yards and five scores.
“John was very successful here, and he’s been just as successful at the next level,” Rudolph said. “For me, all my goals have been to be like John, so to be compared to him is just an honor.”
Rudolph added that Carlson calls him every once in a while to check in and see how things are going.
One area where Carlson improved over the course of his career, and where Rudolph said he needed to work on, is his blocking ability. Rudolph said that a year in the weight room with strength and conditioning coach Ruben Mendoza helped him invaluably in bulking up and becoming stronger.
“He’s a hard worker,” tight ends coach Bernie Parmalee said. “He picked up some weight in the off-season and got stronger.”
Rudolph played last season listed at 250 pounds, and is now up to 260 with added muscle. The Elder High School graduate said he also improved his blocking technique.
“Being on the edge, it’s more about working your technique, and your spacing and timing,” Rudolph said.
And how would he assess his blocking performance in the first game of 2009 against Nevada?
“I did OK,” Rudolph said. “There’s some things I need to fix in the run game and even with route-running.”
That being said, Rudolph’s biggest talent remains the same.
“[My biggest strength is] definitely being able to stretch a defense over the middle of the field and create mismatches against linebackers and safeties,” Rudolph said.
Parmalee agreed that, in terms of the passing game, Rudolph is as good as it gets.
“He’s one of the best in the nation at what he does. When you’ve got a guy that can stretch the defense, and has good hands and good ball skills, it just helps the offense,” the tight ends coach said. “And when you’ve got a guy that size in the middle, it’s pretty good for the quarterback.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have two elite receivers in Golden Tate and Michael Floyd that can help draw safety attention away from the big tight end.
“It helps me tremendously because it forces teams to put safeties over top of them, and if you don’t put a safety over them they’ll run right by you,” Rudolph said.
In last year’s Hawaii Bowl, a nearly flawless offensive performance, the attention the defense paid to Floyd and Tate was noticeable.
“A couple of times in the first half [of the Hawaii Bowl], once you got past the linebackers, the whole middle of the field was wide open,” Rudolph said.
The Irish hope that Rudolph will be able to find that same kind of separation in Michigan Stadium this Saturday.
“I expect a very hostile atmosphere,” he said. “But I’m excited to go up there and play at the Big House.”
Rudolph added that his improved blocking will be especially important against the Wolverine defense, led by defensive end Brandon Graham.
“They’ve got a great defensive end and good linebackers,” Rudolph said. “And if you’re not on top of your game as far as technique goes, they’ll get the best of you.”
Rudolph said he expected the atmosphere Saturday to rival the game at USC last season, but maybe even a notch or two higher.
“I think it’s even still on a completely different level, and I can’t really compare it to anything,” he said.
But, just like moving from third string to starter in three weeks, Rudolph will be sure to take it all in stride.