Rated as the No. 1 tight end in the 2011 draft class, junior Kyle Rudolph went down with a season-ending injury. This injury is not only devastating to this team, but especially to first-year quarterback, Dayne Crist.
In six games this season, Rudolph has grabbed 28 catches for over 300 yards and three touchdowns. His most notable catch was the 95-yard touchdown to put them in the lead late in the game against Michigan.
This season, the question was always looming about whether or not he would come back for his senior season.
If he does, he will no doubt be a huge contributor to this team, as he was this year. However, that may not be the case. As I mentioned earlier, he is the top-rated tight end in the 2011 draft class and all signs point towards him pursuing that at the end of the season.
Last year, there was a similar case when Oklahoma's tight end, Jermaine Gresham went down with an injury for the rest of the season, but was still drafted 21st overall in the draft.
Kyle Rudolph is just as talented, if not more so, and could have more upside. Those things alone will make him a targeted prospect this season, and could lead to him leaving.
So, that will lead to a new era of Fighting Irish tight ends. After Anthony Fasano, John Carlson and now Kyle Rudolph, the new tight end that could potentially replace him has some big shoes to fill. Those candidates to take over the starting job next year are senior (with another year of eligibility) Mike Ragone, sophomore Tyler Eifert and incoming freshman Ben Koyack.
As for this year, he will be replaced by seniors Mike Ragone and Tyler Eifert. Ragone is an experienced tight end at Notre Dame, playing in all 12 games last year while catching six passes for 60 yards. However, this year he has been held to just one catch for 11 yards. He will get many more opportunities, though, with Rudolph now out.
Tyler Eifert is very fast, running a 4.6 40-yard dash. That kind of speed in this spread offense can really let him become a key contributor as this season moves on. Coach Brian Kelly has raved about Eifert's ability, and he could be the future Notre Dame tight end.
On the other hand, replacing Rudolph for this year's team will be near impossible. There isn't anyone in the country who can come in and do the job to his ability, as shown by his ranking in the 2011 draft class.
The loss of Rudolph will definitely hurt the Irish for the rest of this season, but losing him to the NFL draft next season would surely do a lot more damage.