Rudolph’s Pro Bowl performance hints at what could have been

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After putting together a regular season where he caught nine touchdowns in an anemic Vikings passing attack, former Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph was named the MVP of the Pro Bowl yesterday, catching five balls for 122 yards and a touchdown yesterday in Hawaii.It’s a tremendous achievement for the second-year pro, who was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the second round after leaving Notre Dame after his junior season.

Rudolph’s college career for the Irish was one filled with promise, but never of potential realized. As one of the blue-chip pieces of Charlie Weis’ 2008 recruiting class, Rudolph walked into South Bend and immediately onto the field, in the starting lineup for all 13 games as a freshman, the first tight end to do that in Notre Dame history. Rudolph’s rookie season had a few high notes — five catches for 70 yards in a 28-21 victory over Stanford, and a nice performance against Hawaii in the bowl game, catching four balls for 78 yards and a touchdown in the Irish’s 49-21 blowout win.

Rudolph’s production that freshman season was in line with what he did the next two seasons, both of which were marred with injuries. In Rudolph’s sophomore season, he missed the final two games of the year with a shoulder injury. His junior season was all but stopped before it got started, with lingering hamstring issues that started in preseason camp ending his season in early October, when he underwent major surgery and six months of rehab after the hamstring gave out.

The transition to Brian Kelly’s spread offense was one that put Rudolph in a foreign system, but also one that gave us the first look at what Kelly planned on doing with elite tight ends, often flexing Rudolph out as a receiver and working to find one-on-one matchups, lining Rudolph up on one side of the field while Michael Floyd played on the other. That experiment never could get off the ground completely, with the Irish struggling at quarterback with Dayne Crist learning on the job before Rudolph’s injury ended his Irish career.

Rudolph decided to skip his senior season and head to the NFL, a decision that made sense considering he was the top tight end on most NFL draft boards. Yet there was also some disconnect between the Rudolph family and the Irish coaching and training staff, with some reported dissatisfaction about the way the injury was handled.

It’s interesting to think of what Rudolph’s return in 2011 would have meant to the Irish offense. With Tyler Eifert allowed to emerge after Rudolph’s injury, the Irish offense would have been stacked at skill positions, with Michael Floyd anchoring the receivers while Eifert and Rudolph would have made a tight end duo envied by just about every NFL team short of New England.

Whether it was Tommy Rees or Dayne Crist playing, that added weapon would have given defenses fits as they tried to game plan schematically for an Irish offense that was efficient running the football, an adding another All-American to an attack that was explosive when it wasn’t turning the football over.

Yet Rudolph’s decision to leave Notre Dame almost crystallized the Weis era — so many promising pieces that just couldn’t fulfill expectations. There was never any doubt Rudolph had the skills and size to be a successful player, as we saw this season for the Vikings and yesterday in the Pro Bowl.

But like Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, two other three-and-out talents that used Notre Dame more as a stepping stone than a destination, Rudolph’s Irish career leaves most of us wanting more and wondering what could have been.