Ragone still contributing, sixth year possible

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The Irish have done a good job of staying healthy these first four games. Unfortunately, one big exception is fifth-year tight end Mike Ragone, who tore his ACL against Michigan and was lost for the year.

Ragone’s had three major knee injuries dating back to his senior year in high school, a snake-bit career that likely robbed some big stats and offensive production from his time at Notre Dame.

Brought back by head coach Brian Kelly for a fifth year to work as a second tight end and to provide some might in the running game, Ragone’s injury weakens the Irish at the point-of-attack. What it doesn’t do is rob the Irish of his veteran presence, a real testament to Ragone’s character. Ragone made the travel squad against Pitt, and even put off major knee surgery to stay with the team.

“Mike has really been a great mentor to those young tight ends,” Kelly said after practice. “You got three really inexperienced tight ends. He’s been great. He rooms with them, he spends a lot of extra time with those guys. “He’s been a coach for us. He’s at every single practice, he’s put off surgery just to be with the guys. He’s going to get it done, but he’s put it off because he’s so much wanting to be part of what we’re doing.”

When people were speculating who Kelly and his staff would bring back for a fifth year last offseason, Ragone was one of those guys on the bubble, a supporting cast member who didn’t profile to start over Tyler Eifert. But Kelly brought him back, and he worked almost exclusively as a traditional tight end, adding a physical blocker to the run game while allowing Eifert to create mismatches out in space.

With Ragone out, the Irish will rely on Eifert, a “work in progress” blocker, according to tight ends coach Mike Denbrock, and sophomore Alex Welch and freshman Ben Koyack. Junior Jake Golic will also work into the mix, recently back from a broken arm. But Kelly values Ragone’s contributions to the offense so much, that he’ll consider bringing him back for a sixth year — something the NCAA should approve with Ragone’s two seasons missed due to major injuries.

A sixth year will likely come down to Irish recruiting class numbers and who Kelly and company decide to bring back for fifth years. (Some very interesting decisions are on the horizon.) But just the fact that Kelly is considering Ragone’s return shows a lot about a player that’s career highlights might have been sparse.

While there’s a chance that Ragone has played his final snap for the Irish, Kelly and Denbrock still plan to get major contributions out of the veteran as the season rolls on.