Season Preview ‘08: Tight End

Notre Dame, IN ( – One area where Notre Dame has truly excelled on the field under Charlie Weis has been at the tight end position.  Anthony Fasano and John Carlson have manned the position over the past three seasons and both translated their on-field success into second round draft picks. The Irish enter 2008 in much the same way they did 2006 at the position when Carlson had just taken over for Fasano, with a lot of unproven talent at the position.

If there’s been any area where Charlie Weis has had as much success in recruiting as he’s had at the quarterback position, it is easily at tight end.  In his first full class Weis lured in five star recruit Konrad Rueland and four star Will Yeatman.  A year later he was busy securing the commitment of the #2 rated tight end in the country in Mike Ragone.  Then this past February, Weis secured letters of intent from the #1 tight end Kyle Rudolph and another four star prospect in Joseph Fauria.

Rueland left at the beginning of last year after Ragone stepped in as a true freshman and passed him on the depth chart, but the rest of all that talent remains on the Notre Dame roster all vying for a starting spot in a very tight end friendly passing attack.  The problem for the Irish is that all of this talent is, for the most part, rather young and inexperienced.

Heading into fall camp, Mike Ragone was listed as the number one tight end after working with the first unit all spring long while Will Yeatman served his suspension.  Ragone, a true sophomore, saw the field early in his rookie season as the #3 tight end behind Carlson and Yeatman.  He was expected to compete with Yeatman for the starting spot in the spring, but ended up in the driver’s seat for the job after Yeatman missed all of spring practice due to his suspension.

In Ragone the Irish have a legit vertically threat in the passing game – a tight end with speed who can create matchup problems when linebackers try to cover him.  The question about Ragone heading into the fall, however, is whether or not the sophomore New Jersey native is physically ready to be a starting tight end.  The official roster lists him at 251 lbs – smaller than all but Fauria among the Irish tight ends.
While Ragone is a potential weapon in the passing game, is he ready to step in and be a consistent blocker in an offense that struggled mightily to run the ball last season?  A year ago, John Carlson ended up being kept in to help in pass protection as the Irish offensive line struggled.  Will Ragone be able to provide similar support this fall?

Right on Ragone’s heels is Will Yeatman – a junior who also moonlights as a very promising lacrosse player and is looking for some redemption after his off-field issues this spring.  Yeatman has seen playing time since his freshman season when the less heralded recruit passed the five star rated Rueland early in fall camp.  He spent the 2006 season working as the third tight end behind Carlson and backup Marcus Freeman and then worked as Carlson’s understudy a season ago.

Despite being the second tight end last year though, Yeatman caught just 6 passes for 37 yards in 12 games of action.  Yeatman’s biggest asset, however, might his blocking.  His blocking abilities were a major reason for his initial surge up the depth chart as a freshman in 2006.  Missing all of the spring when he could have been getting time with the first time offense will hurt his chances of starting this season though.  His time away from the team gave Ragone all the reps he could handle as the only scholarship tight end on the roster in the spring outside of fullback/tight end hybrid Luke Schmidt.

The wild card in the race for the starting tight end spot could end up being incoming freshman Kyle Rudolph.  The five star rated Ohio native has arrived on campus with a great deal of hype and early returns from fall camp suggest that Rudolph might be one recruit that has lived up to it thus far.

Rudolph is listed on the official roster at 6’6”, 252 lbs and is said to look like anything but a true freshman on the football field both physically and developmentally.   So far in camp he has been making waves and will be challenging for playing time this fall.  Because of how complicated this offense is, especially in the pass protections, it’s a little unrealistic to imagine he will be starting on September 6, but if he continues to impress in practice, its far from unrealistic to imagine he will be starting on November 29.

In Rudolph the Irish have a complete package of a tight end – someone a huge tight end who can be a factor in both the passing game as well as a blocker.  He also has the frame to pack on some more weight without losing his speed.   Like Ragone though, the biggest hurdle for Rudolph will be in the blocking department – at least for now.  While he is listed at 252, he is still just a few months removed from high school and will be trying to block guys much bigger and strong than he is used to.  Look for Rudolph to see the field in multiple tight end formations early and push whoever ends up starting as the season progresses.

Joseph Fauria is the fourth tight end jockeying for playing time this fall.  Fauria is a massive prospect at 6’7”, 245 lbs.  Early returns are that Fauria is physically impressive in camp and looks like he will be a player.  Like Rudolph, he too has the frame to pack on some more weight.  With Ragone, Yeatman, and Rudolph ahead of him; it is likely that Fauria will have some time to put on that weight as well because he will have a tough time passing them on the depth chart this year.

Also in the mix is fullback/tight end hybrid Luke Schmidt.  Many envisioned that the junior Indiana native would be used in a H-Back capacity – much the way the Washington Redskins use Chris Cooley – but up until now Schmidt has barely seen the field.  It is really tough to gauge what kind of impact Schmidt can have at tight end considering he has seen much action at the position thus far.  Weis, however, has had some promising words describing Schmidt’s play at the position in fall camp.

As with a lot of positions on the Notre Dame this fall, the keyword at tight end is potential.  With the talent the Irish have on the roster at this position, it’s easy to get excited about the potential this group possesses.   When you consider that collectively this group has just 6 catches for 37 yards combined in their entire careers though, it’s also to easy to get concerned over the lack of experience the group possesses.

Notre Dame certainly has the potential to get some big plays out this position as we’ve seen over the last couple of seasons with Carlson and Fasano, but it will be up to tight end’s coach Bernie Parmalee to turn that potential into production.  That should prove to be a rather challenging task for Parmalee considering that even with a second round NFL draft pick at the position in Carlson last year, Notre Dame tight ends accounted for just 409 receiving yards.  Most of the that lack of production was a result of Carlson being needed as an extra blocker and Notre Dame quarterbacks not having enough time to find him when he wasn’t.

For Notre Dame to see much production out of this position this year, the offensive line will need to be improved so that the tight ends are not needed in pass protection nearly as much as they were a season ago – that seems to be a recurring theme at most positions on the offensive side of the ball this fall though.  Still, the talent is there for Notre Dame to generate some big plays out of the tight end position in the passing game this fall no matter who ends up starting and in the two deep.

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