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Spring Solutions: Tight End

(For more Spring Solutions, check out the running backs, offensive line, linebackers, and wide receivers.)

As we inch into the opening days of summer, there’s no better time to discuss the tight end position on the Notre Dame roster. After a breakout Blue and Gold Game, it looked as if Mike Ragone was ready to step up and become a top-flight tight end in his own right, giving Notre Dame a one-two punch with preseason All-American Kyle Rudolph that would rival any in the country.

But Ragone’s future with the Irish skidded to a halt after an early May arrest on the Indiana Toll Road, where he and his girlfriend were stopped for speeding and a police officer smelt marijuana in the car. Ragone ultimately plead the marijuana offense down to a minor charge that will be dismissed with good behavior, but the prevailing thought was that Notre Dame’s Residence Life office wouldn’t be so lenient.

Without Ragone, the Irish tight end situation would be extremely top-heavy. There’s no doubting Rudolph, but behind him is nothing but inexperience with Tyler Eifert, Jake Golic, and incoming freshman Alex Welch, to go along with pseudo-tight end Bobby Burger. But news last week that Ragone’s disciplinary hearing came and went without a major suspension had to be a relief for Brian Kelly and position coach Mike Denbrock, because it gives the Irish the ability to use two physically developed tight ends at one time, and also lets the younger players develop at a better pace, which might need to be faster than Irish fans would like, with Rudolph a prime suspect to depart early for the NFL.

2011: Kyle Rudolph, Mike Ragone, (Bobby Burger)
2012: Tyler Eifert
2013: Jake Golic
2014: Alex Welch

There aren’t many tight ends that fit the prototype better than Kyle Rudolph. At 6-foot-6 and a cut 265 pounds, he’s a physical specimen that has shown in two short seasons what he can accomplish both attached and detached from the offensive line. The only sophomore named a Mackey Award semifinalist last season, Rudolph battled a shoulder injury that caused him to miss two games, but still ranked third on the Irish in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns. There’s a very real chance that this could be Rudolph’s final season in South Bend, and if he does go to the NFL there’s little chance he’ll slide out of the first round. Rounding out the juniors is the previously mentioned Ragone, who was also one of the top recruits in the nation at tight end, but has battled two major knee injuries that have kept him from becoming a factor offensively. Ragone missed all of the 2008 season with an ACL tear suffered during summer workouts and then chipped in six catches for 60 yards playing behind Rudolph last year, while playing in all 12 games on special teams. Ragone has the speed necessary to be a offensive threat, and we’ll find out if he’s ready to embrace a rare second chance. (Especially for Notre Dame tight ends.)

Tyler Eifert was one of the players that impressed the new coaching staff this spring, especially considering that Eifert’s career was in question after a major back injury robbed him of his freshman season, only playing in the opening game against Nevada. Eifert could use a bit of time in the weight room, but he’s got great size and can play in space, as evidence by a high school playing career that included playing time at wide out and in the secondary. Eifert will qualify for a fifth year, but we’re listing him as a sophomore.)

Adding depth at the position is Jake Golic, who at 6-foot-4, 230-pounds isn’t ready to contribute in the trenches. Also joining the team this year is another Elder High School tight end, Alex Welch. A highly regarded recruit with offers from Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida State, and Michigan, Welch is another big body that’ll likely make some noise once he’s incorporated into the new Irish offense.