SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Widely regarded as the nation's top tight end heading into the 2010 college football season, Notre Dame junior Kyle Rudolph would be thrilled to receive a postseason award. He said that would mean the Fighting Irish are in line for some hardware.
"It's definitely exciting to be recognized," said Rudolph, a monotone 6-foot-6, 265-pounder from Cincinnati, at Tuesday's Media Day. "At the same time, it's just preseason stuff. Those awards go to the best players on the best teams in the country. You watch the BCS games and the national championship, those are the guys winning awards. That's where we need to get as a team."
As constructive a mindset as that may be, it's hard to believe that if Rudolph's productivity continues to climb as expected, he'd be snubbed even with a sub-par finish by the Irish in coach Brian Kelly's first year.
The Mackey Award finalist from last year -- the only sophomore considered -- has started all but one game since arriving in South Bend. A big target for incumbent quarterback Dayne Crist, Rudolph, still nursing a pulled hamstring but completely healed from rotator cuff surgery last December, has caught 62 passes for 704 yards and five touchdowns in his career. He found out Tuesday he might get the opportunity to run or throw for a score in Kelly's spread offense.
"I heard about that a little while ago," Rudolph said. "I wasn't sure if it was a joke. I'm excited, I can't wait. I played quarterback in fourth grade and we won the championship."
It's no joke, according to Kelly, who used players at the same position at Cincinnati last year when the Bearcats lined up in the wildcat formation.
"I kind of like the big physical guy in there," Kelly said.
Surprisingly, Notre Dame has three guys who fit that bill one week into practices. Senior Mike Ragone (6-4, 245), who was arrested in May for marijuana possession, never was suspended as many assumed he would, and sophomore Tyler Eifert (6-6, 242) has seemingly elbowed his way past Ragone to back up Rudolph and possibly see the field simultaneously.
"It's been really interesting," tight ends coach Mike Denbrock said. "Obviously we've had a few setbacks with Mike Ragone not being able to go full-speed (heat illness) and Kyle Rudolph a little bit slowed by his situation with his hamstring. But it's been as fun a camp as I can remember being involved in, because it's given the younger guys a lot of reps. And then to watch them take advantage of the opportunity they've gotten has been a lot of fun."
Denbrock said he's cautiously trying to add a little more to Rudolph's workload each day. There's no doubt that Rudolph will be ready to go on September 4 against Purdue.
"[Hamstrings] can be a pain for a long period of time," Rudolph said. "[Team doctors] want to fix it now while we have the time."
More from Brian Kelly during Media Day:
On Crist's development: "I think the footwork can continue to get better probably through the first year. You need some game situations, you need a live rush so you can get a sense and feel for how to slide and move your feet in the proper way. Where we're at right now, it won't hold us back from of him being effective in running our offense. He's still got a ways to go."
On changes he's seen in college football: "There's no longer those grinding two-a-days I remember when I first started. I remember some of those days were grinds. Everybody was sleep-deprived. It's a little better now c but you don't spend as much time on the field. Technology has allowed us to do a lot more teaching without having to hit each other."
On frosh QB Tommy Rees: "I don't know that I'm fair to Tommy to just say he's been here longer. c He's really savvy; he's a smart kid. He has those intangibles of a quarterback relative to seeing things before they open up. He's got a great head for the game and understands the offense very well. He showed us early on that he can run this offense. He's in a battle with [Nate] Montana. Montana had a really good day yesterday. Nate's problem is he has a really good day and a really bad day. I gotta get him more consistent, because Tommy's been really consistent."
On other key freshmen: "Probably the topic of conversation for our staff meeting last night, No. 1 for quite a long time was about, 'Who are the freshmen right now that have to be prepared to play?' ... On the offensive side of the ball: T.J. Jones, Tommy Rees, Alex Welch, Tate Nichols, Christian Lombard. ... That's the most I've ever had in 20 years of coaching that will be eating breakfast with the team when we're ready to play. On the defensive side of the ball: Lo Wood is in our two-deep. Prince Shembo is right there and is most likely somebody that will be prepared to play, and Danny Spond has been really, really dynamic. I don't know that we have as many guys that play with their hands and really shock you. You have nine freshmen [including special teams player Austin Collinsworth] right now that will be on the bus."
On building a winning culture: "First thing is you have to stop losing. ... All the things that detract you from winning, [like], 'How do you live your life?' Are you a guy who likes to drink beer on Thursday night and think that you can do that and be the best you can be on Saturday? Are you somebody that likes to hide in practice and pick your spots [as to] when you're going to turn it on? ... I know how to win, and I know what the things are that needed to be put in place here. Our players have cut out a lot of the losing things. ... It's not just about what the scoreboard says."