The Notre Dame offense has gone in fits and starts this season. And now the Irish will be without one of their top playmakers for rest of the year.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph will undergo hamstring surgery later this week and will be out for as long as six months. Rudolph had, by coach Brian Kelly's estimation, been playing at only about 75 percent all season because of hamstring issues that began this summer. Yet he still managed 28 catches for 328 yards and three touchdowns through six games.
But against Pittsburgh, the muscle separated from the bone as Rudolph tried to play through the injury. Now Kelly has to look for other options
Starting out at No. 1 on the depth chart will be sophomore Tyler Eifert. The 6-foot-6, 242-pound Eifert missed most of last season with a back injury, and he sprained his shoulder a few weeks ago and was very limited in practice.
"He's going to have to tape an aspirin on that shoulder," Kelly joked. "Because he's going to play. We think he's able to play winning football for us or we wouldn't put him in there."
Backing up Eifert will be senior Mike Ragone, who had an interesting preseason. He was arrested and charged with marijuana possession in May. Then in preseason camp, he suffered a heat illness and didn't practice much. His rustiness showed on Saturday when he dropped a wide open pass that would have gone for a first down and sealed the game.
"He just needs more playing time in an offense that's obviously a bit different than what he's used to," Kelly said. "This is really just about getting him more and more reps."
Kelly said Eifert and Ragone would split reps since neither is in the physical shape to play an entire game. Sophomore Jake Golic will serve as the third-string tight end. True freshman Alex Welch was a well-regarded recruit, but Kelly said he probably won't burn Welch's redshirt this year.
While Kelly said he's "very confident" in all three tight ends, none offer the package of skills that Rudolph had. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder is nimble and a great pass-catcher who could line up wide as a receiver in certain sets. Though Kelly runs a spread offense, he likes to keep the tight end in on most plays.
This injury does increase the likelihood that Rudolph will come back for his senior year rather than go the NFL draft a year early. Rudolph, who missed time last year with a shoulder injury, may need to prove to scouts that he can play a full year healthy.