Rudolph's future with Irish unknown

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- There’s already plenty of buzz about whether Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph will return for his senior season now that his junior campaign has been cut in half.

Rudolph, arguably the nation’s best at his position, learned Tuesday morning that his season was over because of a hamstring injury and said his goal now is to return to action as soon as possible. But will that be at Notre Dame, or in the NFL.

The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder said he hasn’t made a decision about his future.

“No, not really,” Rudolph said. “For me, all my thoughts have been dedicated to figuring out when I’m going to have surgery and where I’m going to have surgery -- just getting that done as soon as possible so I can start rehabbing and get ready to get back on the field.”

The preseason All-America candidate suffered through pain all season before doing severe damage in last Saturday’s victory against Pittsburgh. According to Irish coach Brian Kelly, Rudolph experienced an avulsion, where two tendons were separated from the bone.

He had 28 receptions for 328 yards and three touchdowns this season, as his production dropped significantly in the last three weeks. Rudolph was somewhat limited in the spring after recovering from an injury to his shoulder that sidelined the Mackey Award semifinalist for most of Notre Dame’s final three contests in 2009 and required offseason surgery.

He’s optimistic about the timetable for his return, which he expects to be six months.

“Yeah, it’s something that, the way it’s been explained to me, the actual procedure is a real quick procedure,” Rudolph said. “It’s not [knee] surgery or like my shoulder surgery. It’s not something complex like that … the part that is intense is the rehab after it. It’s something that you really have to stay on top of and work through.”

A considerable load now falls on the injured shoulder of Tyler Eifert (sophomore) and stagnate senior Mike Ragone as the Irish prepare for a visit by Western Michigan Saturday and another five contests sans Rudolph.

Eifert missed all but the season opener last fall with a back injury and is nursing sprained ligaments in his shoulder. Ragone was hospitalized twice during fall camp with different illnesses and has been playing catch-up ever since. The two have combined for 28 yards on two receptions.

“It’s sad to see one of our best players be out for the season,” Eifert said. “It’s just part of the game and I’m going to have to make the most of my opportunity and do my job to help this football team win. You don’t really fill his shoes, I don’t think. I mean, there’s only one Kyle Rudolph. I’ll just do what I do best and take care of my responsibilities and execute when I’m in there.”

Rudolph remained upbeat, realizing he still has something to offer the rest of the way.

“I understand my role and what I have to do to help these guys,” Rudolph said. “I’m going to get back out here as soon as I can after my surgery and just try and be around Mike and Tyler and try to help them as much as I can on a weekly basis. They’ve taken the reps in practice. That’s not going to be a problem for them; they’re ready for that.”

Here’s a look at some of the topics Kelly addressed earlier in the day:

On keeping his team focused with an easier stretch ahead, starting with WMU: “Well, I told them yesterday we are not that good to think about anybody else but our next opponent. We can't roll the ball out and expect to win football games. Western Michigan, in particular, is going to play their very, very best. I'm not that concerned about the focus of our football team. They understand what's expected of them at the University of Notre Dame. We are going to demand that their focus and attention is on Western Michigan in practice. And they are going to get it from their head coach, as well, and all of the position coaches that they had better be on top of their game.”

On what he’s getting from safety Harrison Smith: “Leadership. He is one of our one of the brighter players that we have coached on the defensive side of the ball. He is our communicator. He makes sure that we give him the right looks. Without his leadership back there, we would not be where we are, from a defensive standpoint. He is the glue back there for us. Not only has he been more productive relative to playing the game in pass deflections and interceptions; he's also been the leader in that back end.

On the development of DE Kapron Lewis-Moore: “Well, he's clearly a young man that has had to develop physically. Came on campus, 215, 220 pounds in that range; he's up there upwards of 280 pounds. He's getting used to his body, he really is. He's carrying a lot of cargo, if you will, and he's really becoming a lot more comfortable with that. So that growth and development is really changing a physique from what it was to where it is today, because he possesses a lot of athletic ability, and we are seeing that each and every week. I think for Kap, it's anchoring in there, and being consistent in his techniques each and every week. He has a tendency to want to do too much sometimes, because he is really gifted as an athlete. So I would say that we are rating his progress as moving in a very good direction. He provides a lot of athletic ability, but I still think he's getting used to the size that he's playing at right now.

On what makes a successful season after a 3-3 start: “Success for us is winning football games. There's no two ways about it. As I see it through my eyes, that's success. And winning games is how we are going to talk about success as a football team. There are also other things that I'm looking for which I said from the very beginning is that I want to be a better football team in November than I was in September. So those will be pretty clear to you, to everybody in this room and to myself, because they are going to keep track of the wins and you are going to keep watching our football team. I think we are all going to be able to say, this is a successful year based upon, this is a better football team in November, and, they have won some football games.”