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August 26, 2008

Tight end tightens up

What looked undermanned in the spring and overloaded just a few days ago now looks like something in between.

Notre Dame's tight end situation took a major hit last week when projected starter Mike Ragone, a sophomore with great promise, finally succumbed to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and underwent season-ending surgery.

That moved freshman Kyle Rudolph into the starting lineup with veteran Will Yeatman and part tight end/part fullback Luke Schmidt comprising the three-man unit when the Irish open the '08 season against San Diego State on Sept. 6.

"We've had Kyle running with that first group for about two weeks," Charlie Weis admitted Monday night after revealing the two-deep depth chart for the Aztecs.

"Mike hasn't been full, full speed. He's been wearing that big brace on his left knee for a while. We said that he'll try to go and if he can go, we'll hang in there and play you. If you can't, there will come a time...

"We don't talk about years and eligibility. But that came into play in his mind when it was not going anywhere positive with him. I'm very comfortable with Kyle, Will and Luke."

Weis didn't mention Fauria until the name was brought to his attention.

"Knock on wood, you could have more things come into play," Weis said. "We don't go into this with three tight ends without having what you're going to do (in case of another injury). You have a contingency plan, which we'll practice this week and we'll practice next. We're not going to get caught short."

Weis would prefer to go with the three healthy tight ends and preserve Fauria's year of eligibility. At 6-foot-7, 245 pounds, he could use a year to acclimate himself to the college game and work in the weight room.

In the meantime, Weis has three guys with varying skills. Rudolph is viewed as a pure tight end because "he runs faster down the field than the rest of them," as Weis put it. Yeatman and Schmidt are more combination tight end/fullback-in-motion type players.

"It all depends on systems," Weis said. "The move tight end-some call them H's-we call them F's...Instead of being like (fullback) Asaph (Schwapp) in the backfield, it's a guy who plays closer to the line of scrimmage. He's not the primary tight end.

"When a defense goes up there and you have multiple tight ends on the field, they'll identify one guy as the guy who dictates how we're lining up the front. In our case, that guy will be Rudolph unless Rudolph isn't in there. If it were Yeatman and Schmidt, (the opposition) would dictate that it's Yeatman. They would know by pure depth that Rudolph and Yeatman are more the natural Y's."

Some have viewed Yeatman's spot on the second rung of the depth chart-following his spring suspension-as a sign that he's come back slowly. In truth, Rudolph is a five-star recruit with exceptional pass-catching skills. He's simply incredibly skilled and impossible to keep off the field. Yeatman is a steady, skilled and versatile player who gives the Irish options. He likely will play as much if not more than Rudolph, particularly if Weis follows through with his plan to become a "pound-it" offense.

"Will Yeatman is a very good tight end," Weis said. "He's 265 pounds. He's a nice, solid blocker. He's got soft hands. But Kyle runs vertically down the field pretty fast."

In other words, Rudolph is a tight end (or Y in football parlance), Yeatman is an F (a move tight end) as well as a Y, and Schmidt is an F.

"Will would be the swing guy," Weis said. "He could be a 'move' tight end (an F) or a stationary tight end (a Y). He's the one that gives us position flexibility. Kyle would kind of be locked down and Luke would be locked down in what their jobs are. Will will be that guy that gives us enough flexibility to go in and out without missing much."

Rudolph has given the offense much more punch at the line of scrimmage than Weis anticipated when he was recruited.

"We were pleasantly surprised with (Rudolph as a blocker)," Weis said. "During hoop season, he was 225, up from 215. Now he's over 250 with a lot of room to grow.

"He obviously spent a lot of time in the weight room working his butt off to get himself some bulk and some size. He's been a better than adequate guy at the point of attack, which is probably a little more than I was expecting when he walked through the door."


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