Wednesday, August 22, 2007

#11 - Tight End U

12 Days of Irish football continues...

#11 - Tight End U

Notre Dame's most seasoned player (and its best pro prospect) on offense is a tight end. Notre Dame's best position in terms of overall depth is tight end. Last season's top TE prospect chose Notre Dame. And Notre Dame's top recruit for the coming year is a tight end. Are we detecting a trend here?

As quickly as Charlie Weis developed a reputation for grooming quarterbacks thanks to Tom Brady and Brady Quinn, the Irish were even more quickly turning into a tight end factory much like Miami (FL) had been in earlier in the decade, when the 'Canes bounced from Bubba Franks to Jeremy Shockey to Kellen Winslow to recent Chicago Bears draft choice "G-Reg", who had a very infamous week and a half inside the Irish program.

As early as October 2005, in the middle of a breakout season for tough-talking fellow Jersey guy Anthony Fasano, Weis was singing the praises of backup John Carlson - "NFL scouts come in and are like, 'Whoa, who's this guy?" Until Weis' arrival, Carlson's most noticeable ND moment was probably his freshman year split between football duties and walking-on to Mike Brey's basketball squad, which ought to give you some insight into his overall athletic ability. It's no coincidence Pat Haden never ceases to come up with at least one hoops analogy per broadcast when describing Carlson's play.

Behind last season's Mackey Award finalist (and likely winner were it not for a knee
 injury suffered against Air Force that knocked him out of the Army & USC games) are two battle-tested sophomores with their own superfreak skills: California kid Konrad Reuland (pictured, from Mission Viejo) and Will Yeatman (San Diego), who's another two-sport star in the making after cleaning up on the Irish lacrosse field this spring (he was selected National Rookie of the Year and an Honorable Mention All-American). Then there's Mike Ragone, yet another Jersey guy with the attitude and talent necessary to fight for playing time right away. Weis made a point after August 11th's open practice to single Ragone out as a guy who was "very fast" for his position.

So why are Cincinnati's Kyle Rudolph, a five-star TE, and Washington State giant Joseph Fauria (a lanky 6'8") already committed to the Irish when they'll be stacked immediately amidst that kind of insanely good depth chart? For the simple reason that just because one man gets the boffo stats doesn't mean that every tight end can't share in the glory. Glance over the Irish's results in the past two seasons, and third-option Marcus Freeman was as significant a piece of the overall offense as Fasano & Carlson, even if much of the throws ended up in the arms of the latter two. Wei's simple motto is to use his team's best strengths, and a whole lot of things open up for you when having 3 top-flight tight ends is among your strengths. When an experienced quarterback knows how to get a big, nimble tight end involved in the offense, look out. And when the quarterback is inexperienced? That's when a great athlete at tight end becomes (wait for it...) a quarterback's best friend.

The familiar refrain of worry across NDNation goes that Weis will have a devil of a time grooming replacements for Quinn, Samardzija, Rhema McKnight, & Darius Walker. No matter what the Irish have a new QB , and their most experienced receivers are the diminutive David Grimes & George West, along with junior DJ Hord (on the mend from ankle injuries) plus frosh Duval Kamara and Golden Tate. Speedsters Barry Gallup saw no action last year, Richard Jackson and his questionable hands were limited to special teams duty, and Robby Parris is much like current recruit John Goodman in that he invites Samardzija comparisons due to being tall and white. So if that's what you're facing, what do you do? Concentrate on what you don't have to replace - the best crop of Irish tight ends ever.

Taking all that into consideration, it's not difficult to call tight end the best position in terms of talent and experience, but also the most essential. Doesn't matter who takes the snaps once Georiga Tech arrives; all he'll need to see is Carlson snagging one over the middle and a lot of anxiety will fade. Or see his 3-TE set provide a power lane for one of five running backs to cut through on a toss play. The tight end isn't merely a blocker or simply a pass-catcher in Weis' offense; the position has to excel at both and players get justly rewarded for doing so, which is why the Irish currently have four players who could all be #1 at the position for a school that probably won't utilize the tight end so efficiently and so creatively as Notre Dame does. That reputation will be put to the test in 2007, and most measures of success for the team will come at the same rate that they come for Carlson, Reuland, Yeatman, & Ragone.

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