He was a productive tight end coming off a major injury. Back surgery is nothing that NFL clubs are going to sneeze at when investing millions into a prospect. Arizona TE Rob Gronkowski had missed his entire junior season, but declared for the draft anyway. He also apparently convinced NFL team physicians as New England took him in round two with the 42nd overall pick. The tight end went on to become a vital cog in the Patriots offense, and may have made the path to the NFL for a tight end with similar circumstances that much easier this spring.
Kyle Rudolph was the first true freshman to start the opener at Notre Dame in the program's illustrious history in 2008. Though his receiving numbers weren't eye popping in his first two seasons for the Irish, his ability to make plays in the passing game while providing a push in the run game were apparent.
His junior season was to be his breakout campaign, but it was cut short by a hamstring avulsion. Rudolph's hamstring muscle was torn away from the bone requiring surgery. His 2010 campaign was over after six games.
After seeking the opinions of his former coach Charlie Weis, current head coach Brian Kelly and family members, Rudolph chose to declare for the draft anyway in what is considered to be a thin crop of quality tight ends.
"Initially, right after I had my surgery in October I wasn't sure, but as things went along and as I progressed, this is something that I'll make a complete recovery from and knowing that it's not a factor anymore and I'm just moving forward."
Rudolph, much like Gronkowski, has a versatile skill set with the strength to handle the blocking on the line and the athleticism to make plays in the passing game.
"I just feel like I'm a complete tight end," he said. "A tight end who can hold the point and block at the line scrimmage as well as a tight end who can get down field and catch balls. I'm a tight end who can play on all downs."
That athleticism was on display against Michigan this past season, when he made eight receptions for 164 yards, including a 95-yard touchdown catch in which he outran a safety 40 yards to the end zone.
The yardage total set a single-game record eclipsing that of former Irish tight end Anthony Fasano, a veteran NFL tight end with whom Rudolph keeps in close contact.
"I didn't get to know Anthony until my sophomore year," said Rudolph. "He and I had the same shoulder surgery and I was able to reach out to him and get a feel for what it was going to be like and what it was that I was going to be going through. Since then our relationship has continued to develop.
Rudolph is also tight with Seattle tight end John Carlson. Rudolph was paired with Carlson on his recruiting visit to Notre Dame and succeeded him at the position.
What is likely to carry the most weight for Rudolph in the eyes of NFL talent evaluators is his exposure to a pro-style offense under Charlie Weis his first two years in South Bend.
"Playing for Coach Weis for two years was great," Rudolph said. "He's the reason why I went to Notre Dame. We worked with multiple tight ends. I loved playing in his offense."
Much like Gronkowski, Rudolph is considered a first-round talent, but his injury concerns will likely push him to the second round. That's why Rudolph's pro day on April 7th is so crucial.
At the NFL combine the Irish tight end said his hamstring was 75-80 percent. With his pro day in 10 days however, he anticipated being able to perform fully for NFL scouts.
Provided he runs in the mid-4.6s as expected and shows no ill effects from hamstring surgery, Rudolph is likely to come off the board even before Gronkowski did a year ago. And though he admittedly patterns his game after Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten, Rudolph is just looking to make his own way.
"You don't see many guys that are able to play first down, second down and third down at tight end," he said. "That's my goal every day when I'm working. I want to be a tight end that is an all-down tight end. That's what I want for my career and my future."