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Updated: June 12th, 2012 7:47pm
Zulgad: TE Kyle Rudolph has big expectations for second NFL season

Zulgad: TE Kyle Rudolph has big expectations for second NFL season

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Kyle Rudolph has watched what Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have done in New England. He has seen the Green Bay Packers utilize Jermichael Finley as a combination tight end and wide receiver. He also has broken down the tape of veteran standouts such as Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez.

And entering his second season, Rudolph has come to this conclusion: He wants to join this group of elite tight ends who have had a significant impact in the passing game. He wants to be one of Christian Ponder's primary targets.

"I've studied all the great ones," Rudolph said Tuesday following a practice that was part of the Vikings' Organized Team Activities at Winter Park. "I feel like I can do that same thing here. That's my approach everyday when I come out here is to be able to try to emulate some of the things they do in their route running and make plays in the pass game."

The Vikings surprised many by selecting Rudolph in the second round in April 2011 because they felt the Notre Dame product was simply too good to pass up.

Visanthe Shiancoe, a good pass-catching tight end, was on the roster at the time, but the Vikings knew they were unlikely to bring the veteran back and the fact the tight end role has evolved so much made Rudolph an intriguing prospect.

But with the offseason program wiped out by the lockout last spring and summer, Rudolph's only preparation with his new team came in training camp. He played in 15 games, starting eight times, and caught 26 passes (39 targets) for 249 yards with three touchdowns.

That was a long way from the type of statistics that Rudolph aspires to post. One set of numbers he has looked at were Gronkowski's. The Patriots tight end had 90 receptions for 1,327 yards with 17 touchdowns in 2011.

The 23-year-old Gronkowski, who is 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, posted those figures in his second NFL season. The 22-year-old Rudolph is listed at 6-6, 258 pounds and sees no reason he can't begin to assert himself in his second year.

"Gronkowski and I are very similar from a height, weight and speed standpoint," Rudolph said. "Watching a lot of his catches from last year, and a lot of his touchdowns, just the way he's able to use his body and create separation are some of the things that I'm trying to incorporate. ...

"Tight ends aren't guys who are going to burn down the field, but we're fast enough, and if we can create that little bit of separation, it makes all the difference."

Rudolph admits now that creating the separation he wanted as a rookie wasn't always possible.

That's because he was still dealing with a hamstring injury that ended his junior season at Notre Dame in October 2010. Attempting to play despite a sore right hamstring, Rudolph ended up tearing the muscle off the bone and had to undergo surgery.

The recovery was expected to take six months, but it was far longer before Rudolph felt completely right.

"For me it was one of those things where I was always used to running by linebackers," said Rudolph, who described this as his first healthy offseason in a long time. "There was a point halfway through last year where I ran a go route, and I ran by a linebacker and I was like, 'That's the first time I've done that in about a year.' ...

"It's weird when you have surgery because you feel like you're going as fast as you can and you feel like you are ... But then you watch yourself on tape and you're like, 'That's just not me.' But now I feel like I'm running like I used to. I feel like I definitely have that explosiveness that I had when I was in college that made me a special tight end."

Rudolph isn't the only one who has noticed or felt a difference in his ability to run routes at the speed to which he had become accustomed before the injury.

"Coach (Leslie) Frazier said something to me during our offseason runs," Rudolph said. "He came up to me and made a point that I look like my old self and I look explosive. It was really encouraging to hear that from someone else because as a player you always think you're running fast or back to your old self. But for someone on the outside to see my explosiveness, it makes me excited and makes my hamstring a thing of the past."

Seeing Rudolph running at full speed again - he said in college his 40-yard dash was timed around 4.6 - isn't the only encouraging thing Frazier has seen.

"Although we don't have on pads right now, seeing his effort when we're trying to block without pads gives you hope because with Jimmy (Kleinsasser) retiring that's an area where we are going to need someone to stabilize the line of scrimmage," Frazier said. "He's shown that he has the potential to be that person.

"We know what he can do receiving. Christian is definitely going to look for him when he's throwing the football. He's a great outlet for Christian. But we need another guy to step up and solidify the line of scrimmage for us. We think he has the potential to do that."

Ponder, also entering his second season, is excited about what offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has come up with for Rudolph in the passing game.

"Bill's really tried to spread him out and get him out wide and create a lot of mismatches with him and he can do it," Ponder said. "He's got the speed and the hands and agility to do it. I think we're definitely working that way as we got more comfortable."

Ideally for Ponder, he can utilize Rudolph as a threat over the middle. That would help open up the field for speedy wide receivers like Jerome Simpson and Percy Harvin.

Among those expecting Rudolph to have that type of impact is ESPN.com, which lists Rudolph fourth on a list of 10 NFC breakout players for 2012.

Rudolph's reaction?

"I don't read anything good or bad," he said. "I understand you guys write stuff to get out to the fans. I'm a fan myself and they read that to feel like they're a part of the game and to get news and information.

"But for me, I just come out here every day focused on me getting better because I want to be the best tight end in the league, not just an emerging tight end. I come out here every day with that mindset." 

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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