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October 13, 2010
Replacing Mr. Irreplaceable
Notre Dame won't ask Tyler Eifert to be Kyle Rudolph.
Any passable impression will do now that the would-be All-American has been sidelined for the year by impending hamstring surgery. Head coach Brian Kelly expects Eifert and Mike Ragone to do all the things his shelved star did, which doesn't mean anyone believes those understudies to be pitch perfect in nailing Rudolph's lines.
"There's only one Kyle Rudolph," Eifert said. "I'll just do what I do best. Just be myself, don't try to be Superman or anything like that."
Any action hero will do, which is what the Irish coaching staff believes it might have in Eifert and Ragone, a reserve duo with nine career catches and just two this season.
If a program could be prepared for losing a 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end with the speed to score from 95 yards out, Notre Dame might be the one. It practiced most of training camp without Rudolph, who strained his hamstring in July. Since Rudolph re-aggravated the injury against Stanford, the Irish have been dealing with a three-quarters version of the junior.
"We have two other tight ends that could start just about anywhere else in the country, it's just their turn to start now," said offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. "I don't think we're going to change very much at all."
That means Notre Dame won't abandon its base personnel set of three receivers, one tight end and one back. While the Irish have the manpower to go four-wide, they'd lose the threat of the run game and potentially fall into a one-dimensional look.
Eifert doesn't have the power of Rudolph at the point of attack, but may be the junior's peer in athleticism. Ragone's bullish style could keep defenses honest although he lacks Rudolph's agility.
Molnar said Eifert would be Notre Dame's starter against Western Michigan despite not playing against Boston College or Pittsburgh in the wake of a shoulder sprain now two weeks old. The sophomore doesn't have much choice but to get back on the field Saturday. The Irish training staff has ramped up efforts to ready Eifert for the Broncos.
"He's going to have to tape an aspirin onto that shoulder," Kelly said. "He's got to play."
Aside from the playing time of Eifert and Ragone, the loss of Rudolph will affect no player more than Crist, who could count on No. 9 as his personal security blanket. One of Crist's best friends off the field, the tight end was also one of the quarterback's favorite targets on it. Rudolph led the Irish in receptions through three weeks.
Now Crist must learn to play without that NFL-caliber outlet. More than once this season the quarterback went to the line of scrimmage knowing the ball was going to Rudolph almost no matter what coverage he saw.
"There's been a lot. That happens pretty frequently," Crist said. "You know that you can just count on him to get open, to catch the ball; there's no worry. In situations like that, it will be third and short with a throw called, you're already thinking about the next play, because you know that he's just going to catch it. I mean, that's Kyle. That's what happens.
"Now it will just force you to be a better player and to be a better leader on the offense and developing the other guys and making great throws and great decisions."