Losing the top tight end in college football is never easy, but in a way the hamstring injury that hampered and eventually ended Kyle Rudolph's 2010 campaign could actually prove beneficial in 2011.
When Rudolph's season was shortened, it opened the door for then sophomore Tyler Eifert to show his potential. While Rudolph departed for the NFL, Eifert gave us a sample of what to look for in 2011.
In six games last season, Rudolph had 28 receptions for 328 yards and three touchdowns. After Rudolph went down, Eifert stepped in and had 27 receptions for 359 yards and two touchdowns. Only one of Eifert's receptions came with Rudolph in uniform.
Over the final seven games of the season, Eifert ranked second on the team with 26 catches for 335 yards, basically allowing Coach Kelly to not have to make any adjustments in his offensive scheme at that position.
Fifth year senior Mike Ragone, who has nine career starts at tight end, brings a sense of veteran leadership to the position. Having studied under John Carlson and Rudolph, Ragone can be helpful in instilling the traditions that have been passed down from Notre Dame tight ends in past years.
Junior Jake Golic, sophomore Alex Welch and incoming freshman Ben Koyack make up the rest of the Irish tight ends. Golic is looking to make a dent in the depth chart, and with a successful camp, could make some plays this season.
Alex Welch is a talented tight end out of Elder High School in Cincinnati. At 6'5" 240 lbs, he was a physical blocker in high school. Look for that punishing style to increase in intensity after spending time with coach Longo. Welch is not limited to blocking—he had 43 receptions for 625 yards as a senior at Elder.
Ben Koyack is the heralded tight end from Western Pennsylvania who chose the Irish over Ohio State, Penn State, USC, Pitt and others.
Looking deeper into what we can expect from Coach Kelly's utilization of the tight ends, the answer is unclear judging from his seasons at Cincinnati.
Last year the Irish tight ends had a combined 58 catches for 712 yards, in a somewhat limited offense; Limited because I believe that the offense that we saw last season was approximately 30-35 percent of what we will see in the future.
In 2007 while at Cincinnati, Kelly's tight ends totaled 35 catches for 472 yards, with the primary accounting for 399 yards. In 2008 it was 59 receptions for 659 yards with most of the yardage being distributed between five tight ends. Finally in 2009, Cincinnati tight ends totaled 50 receptions for 697 yards, with 364 of those yards going to the main target.
While the depth and skill level are not the same between the two schools, what is interesting is the progression of the numbers as Kelly's system started to take hold in Cincinnati. Using those numbers as a benchmark, I look for a steady increase in the production at that position under Kelly.
Notre Dame tight ends, in the first year of a new regime, put up better numbers than the tight ends at Cincinnati under an established system.
Production out of the tight end position is one of the reasons that Notre Dame is able to land the top recruits at that position every year.
Take Ohio State for example. Jim Tressel and company wonder why they lose the top Ohio prep tight ends to other schools every season. The answer is simple: Their primary tight end averaged just under two catches per game in 2010.
Not to be lost in this tight end talk is Irish tight end coach Mike Denbrock, who is the link to past standout Notre Dame ends. Players that have succeeded under Denbrock include Carlson and Anthony Fasano—both second round draft picks. Coach Denbrock's link to past Irish tight ends combined with Kelly's system is a recipe for success.
Denbrock, who is an outstanding recruiter, is also a draw when looking at bringing in future greats like Taylor MacNamara—a prospect out of San Diego.
We should see an increase in production out of the tight end position in 2011, and with the depth at that position, consistency should be expected for years to come.