While several Vikings stars took unique paths to become elite NFL players — Adam Thielen coming from Division II Minnesota State Mankato, Kirk Cousins being an afterthought at Michigan State before being drafted as a backup, Stefon Diggs being a fifth-round pick out of Maryland — Kyle Rudolph followed a more direct route.
Rudolph was a five-star recruit, the No. 1-rated tight end and the No. 20 overall prospect in the country coming out of Elder High School in Cincinnati. And as he puts it, “I was fortunate enough, as a high school kid, to have pretty much a scholarship offer from every school in the country.”
He visited Tennessee, Ohio State, Florida, Boston College and Notre Dame.
“I think Notre Dame has to look for a certain type of player to go after because of the admission standards,” Rudolph said. “You have to meet a certain requirement to get into school. You can’t just be eligible through the clearinghouse and get into Notre Dame.
“So they recruit a specific type of individual, and then the school itself and the football program, it sells itself. Notre Dame has the history and tradition that it has on the football side, but also the degree and the alumni network speaks for itself.”
The fact he met Harrison Smith at Notre Dame has also given him a consistent defensive star to measure himself against for nearly a decade.
“He has always been a great football player. Extremely smart, always in the right spot. I have gone against him in practice for nine out of the last 10 years and he’s a guy to where it’s extremely hard day in and day out to beat him,” Rudolph said. “He is such a smart and talented football player that he already knows what you’re going to do before you do it.
“It has made it tough practicing against him every day for the last 10 years.”
Fully healthy, feeling 19 again
A second-round draft pick in 2011, Rudolph has played all 48 regular-season games the past three seasons, matching his total number of games played his first four years in the league.
The past two seasons have been particularly great. Rudolph’s 15 touchdowns trail only Jimmy Graham among NFL tight ends, and his 1,372 yards are sixth best in the league.
Still, he was injured at the tail end of 2017. He was asked how he is feeling heading into his eighth season.
“I got hurt in the Carolina game when someone fell on my leg and I sprained my ankle. But fortunately, with our great training staff here and our doctors, I was able to play every game last year, and had the surgery in the offseason, got the ankle fixed and I feel great,” he said. “This entire training camp, I have honestly felt like I’m in the best shape I have ever been in and moving as well as I have since I was 19 years old.”
And while new Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and new quarterback Cousins both have reputations as being tight end-friendly, Rudolph said he’s not expecting a huge uptick in production.
“With our offense, you look back to the couple places [DeFilippo] was before here, I like to think we have much more dynamic playmakers than they did in the places that he was in,” said Rudolph, 28. “We have guys like Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray. I don’t expect the tight end to be as involved as maybe in the past, but there is going to be a role for us, and we’re going to do everything we can to help this team win football games.”
Record books within reach
Rudolph is first in Vikings history in touchdown catches for a tight end and second in receptions and yards, behind the great Steve Jordan. He was asked what it means to be going after those kind of franchise records.
“He is a phenomenal football player, a guy that changed the tight end position when he played the game, and a guy I have gotten to know a little bit through my time here,” Rudolph said of Jordan, a seventh-round draft pick out of Brown in 1982 who went on to six Pro Bowls over 13 seasons with the Vikings. “He’s someone I look up to a lot. Just being mentioned in the same category as him is an honor, and I’m going to do everything I can this season to go out and help our team win games.”
Still Rudolph said while the touchdowns and receptions are great, he has a narrow focus on his goals.
“If your goal is not to win a championship then why be out here?” he said. “We have everything we need to take the step that we didn’t take last year. Everyone knows how the season ended. For us it’s about taking the next step and going further and winning that game and being the first team in Vikings history to win a championship.”
Yes, Rudolph is one of the great talents in the NFL, and he will play a key role in the Vikings’ chances of winning a division or a Super Bowl.
But he has also done great work for the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital and continues to pride himself on being a leader on and off the field — a trait he said he learned from former teammate Chad Greenway.
“Chad is a guy who has always showed me what it means not just to be a true professional in your work,” Rudolph said, “but an incredible husband, an incredible father, a man that serves his community and does the right things on and off the field.”
• Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck said he was pleased with Thursday’s 48-10 victory over New Mexico State but added, “It is very, very difficult to exceed my expectations, because the minute you’re getting close to exceeding my expectations, they immediately go up. It’s very hard to do that. I don’t know if anybody exceeded it. This is what I wanted to see out of our football team.”
• Now that the preseason is over, the oddsmakers at Bovada have the Vikings tied with the Rams for the third- best odds to win the NFL championship, trailing last year’s Super Bowl teams, the Patriots and Eagles. The Vikings also have opened as six-point favorites over the 49ers for Week 1.
• It’s worth noting that left tackle Matt Kalil, the Vikings’ 2012 first-round pick now in his second season with Carolina, had a knee scope and is out indefinitely.
• The Bears’ trade for Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack brought to mind the Vikings’ trade of a first-round pick and two third-round picks in the 2008 draft to the Chiefs for defensive end Jared Allen. Kansas City got tackle Branden Albert in the first round and running back Jamaal Charles and safety DaJuan Morgan in the third. Charles is the Chiefs’ all-time rushing leader. Allen was a three-time All-Pro and one of the greatest Vikings ever.
• The word is that former Gophers men’s basketball player Royce White of Hopkins is going to play in Italy under longtime NCAA and NBA coach Larry Brown for Fiat Torino.
• Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari talked to Kentucky Sports Radio about DeLaSalle product Reid Travis, who is now with the Wildcats as a graduate transfer from Stanford. “My thing with him is, let’s lose some weight,” Calipari said. “Let’s be more about movement. You’re not going to lose your strength and your power.”