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Updated: August 17th, 2014 1:26am
Zulgad: Rudolph's big performance leaves him wanting to do more

Zulgad: Rudolph's big performance leaves him wanting to do more

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Kyle Rudolph could spend his day off Sunday focusing on the fact he caught four passes for 89 yards in the Vikings' 30-28 preseason victory Saturday over the Arizona Cardinals at TCF Bank Stadium.

He could go back and spend time watching his 51-yard touchdown reception from Matt Cassel in the second quarter, a play that could serve as a preview as to just how big of role the fourth-year tight end will play in the Vikings' offense this season.

But while Rudolph enjoyed the highlights from playing in the first half Saturday, his primary focus will be on a play he failed to make. That came on the Vikings' first drive when Rudolph failed to catch a Cassel pass on third down from the Arizona 3-yard line. Cassel put the ball a touch high, in part so the defender would have no shot at it, but the 6-foot-6 Rudolph couldn't pull it in either.

"I think that's the play that I'll probably watch the most over the next couple of days," Rudolph said. "We got the coverage that we wanted, Matt made a great check and I came out a little too flat. I've got to keep my route higher and obviously make the catch. It just boils down to me making the play."

It's this type of self-criticism that is among the reasons why Rudolph serves as a potential nightmare for opposing defenses this season.

Let's just say his motivation level is extremely high right now. 

Rudolph was limited to eight games last season because of a fractured left foot suffered against the Dallas Cowboys. As he went through rehabilitation to start to get ready for the 2014 season, Rudolph decided he wanted to take some stress off the foot by dropping weight.

He received further motivation when new coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner both suggested that Rudolph would be better suited for their offensive scheme if he played at a lighter weight. Rudolph, who was never heavy, dropped 15 pounds from 275 to 260.

As he sped toward the end zone on Saturday after running a skinny post, he looked more like a wide receiver than a tight end.

"I'd like to think I've always been fast, but losing the weight definitely helps," said Rudolph, who had one catch for 22 yards in the Vikings' preseason opener against Oakland. "I feel like not only can I run better, but I feel like I can run longer. You don't have that nine-, 10-play drive where you really feel like you're breathing heavy and then you get into the red zone and it's like, 'This is the time to make a play,' but you're too tired to make it because of the weight or whatever."

The Vikings made it clear that they had big plans for Rudolph in late July when they rewarded their 2011 second-round pick with a six-year, $37.46 million contract extension that contains $18.5 million in guarantees.

Turner's offense often has utilized a tight end in the passing game - Cleveland's Jordan Cameron (80 catches for 917 yards with seven touchdowns) was the beneficiary of this last season - and Rudolph will find himself in that same role this season.

"That's what I did in high school and a little bit in college so I'm comfortable with it," Rudolph said of being a big part of the passing game. "It's what the league is evolving to. Anytime we can create matchups that favor us we've got to be able to move all over the place."

Cassel has noticed the difference the weight loss has made in Rudolph's game.

"I have tremendously, especially in terms of his speed and his quickness," Cassel said. "He dropped (15) pounds, which is hard to do for a guy that's at like 6 percent body fat, but at the same time he did it and he looks great running around. He's looked great all camp and that's starting to carry over on the field on game days which is great. I'm sure he's excited about that."

What really excites Rudolph is being in Turner's offense, not only because of the scheme but also because of the coordinator's ability to call the right play at the right time.

In fact, Zimmer said that Rudolph came up to him after the touchdown and said, "That guy you got upstairs is a genius."

Rudolph elaborated on what he meant.

"(Turner) does such a great job and he has a unique feel," Rudolph said. "On that 51-yard touchdown we were sitting on the bench and he said, 'Get ready for it. I think it looks good.' Sure enough, two plays later, he calls it and it was wide open. He just has that feel. He sits up in the (coaches) box and I feel like he just kind of has his little glass ball that he can look into. He just always dials up plays at the right time."

It helps, of course, when your offense features guys like Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson at the wide receiver and Rudolph at tight end. And that doesn't include Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson, who won't play until the regular season begins.

"I've always said that I want to have a big role in this offense, especially in the passing game, and for me that's why you put in all the work," Rudolph said. "That's why you go out and run all the routes that you do and you get on the same page with the quarterback. Because when it's a third down or we get across the 50 and there's a chance to put some points on the board, you want your number called. When you have this offense, those opportunities come and you just have got to take advantage of them."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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