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August 11, 2009SOUTH BEND, Ind. - Mike Ragone went off script. The tight end tackled Notre Dame's expectations head on.
"I'm just going to give it 110 percent and win a national championship, hopefully," he said.
It's easy to grant Ragone creative license in not talking about not talking. After severe knee injuries canceled his senior season at Camden Catholic and his sophomore season at Notre Dame, the former national recruit probably deserves that break.
The irony is that for the first time since arriving at Notre Dame, Ragone could let his play speak for him. Coach Charlie Weis said he's never seen the tight end look better in an Irish uniform than camp's opening day. Tight ends coach Bernie Parmalee said Ragone made a leap at the end of spring practice, one he's extended into August.
Now, after three years of healing, Ragone might be ready to bolster a chronically thin depth chart. After starter Kyle Rudolph comes Ragone. After Ragone comes a walk-on and two freshmen, a group Weis would rather not rely on too much.
"When [Weis] tells you on the first day in practice that he notices that I'm looking pretty good, it makes me feel good," Ragone said. "But it's only day one. When we put pads on, then the real men come out and we'll see what's up."
Ragone has tried not to think about his second anterior cruciate ligament recovery in three years, even if he can feel the soreness daily. He couldn't ask for a better sounding board than Parmalee, who blew out his knee four seasons into his NFL career but returned to finish off a nine-year run in the pros.
Parmalee ripped off his metaphorical band aid by not practicing with a brace following his rehab, not an example he necessarily advocates for Ragone.
"When your mind is telling you to do something but your body is telling you that you can't do it right now, that's frustrating," Parmalee said. "I said I'm going to throw myself into the fire. I wanted to prove that I can get my mind right to say it's fixed.
"But it's a process, you can't speed it up."
Ragone doesn't need a reminder. In the past three years he's suffered more season-ending knee injuries than he's caught passes. He's also watched opportunity for playing time come, go, come, go and come back. Notre Dame's tight end depth chart has lost three transfers in two years in Joseph Fauria, Will Yeatman and Konrad Reuland.
That's left the Irish begging for help and grasping at game plans. The Irish worked most of last season with Rudolph as the only viable option, in effect cutting out sections of the playbook. A season prior wasn't much better with Ragone injured, Reuland departing mid-season and Yeatman a bit player. The tight end position was John Carlson and everybody else.
"We like to use a lot of tight ends and that's the way it's been in the past," Parmalee said. "Unfortunately, the last couple years we've had guys go down, we've had guys transfer.
"When Coach Weis was in New England, they used tight ends all the time. You get the matchups on safeties and linebackers. You come in with a run set, but that doesn't mean you're going to run. We've been that way the first couple years we got here, but then the last couple years we pulled back a little bit just because of injuries and stuff like that.
Could Ragone and Rudolph recreate a 2005 look when the Irish had a pair of NFL second-round picks in Carlson and Anthony Fasano splitting defenses? That remains to be seen. But there's no uncertainty about Ragone's dedication to making that happen.
"I'm not leaving," Ragone said. "Even if I break all my legs and everything, I'm not going nowhere. I just keep going forward, you know what I mean?"
If there's something Ragone would rather not talk about, it's his health more than Notre Dame's potential. He looks forward to the day when he gets summoned into interviews for questions about catches and touchdowns, not surgeries and rehabs. Although if he could skip the media packs around the Irish program, that would be fine too.
"To be honest, if it was up to me I wouldn't want to come in here [for interviews] anyway," Ragone said. "Not that I don't like you guys, I just keep to myself. I'm quiet. I don't know if I'm quiet, but I'm just quiet with other people."
It's on the field where Ragone wants to make noise.