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Sunday, April 21, 2024
The Observer

Raridon set to step into key role for Irish at Sun Bowl

Irish sophomore tight end Eli Raridon eludes a tackle during Notre Dame's 45-7 win over Wake Forest at Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 18.

Amid a turbulent season of Notre Dame football, it’s safe to say that no Irish player has seen his role change more over the last four months than sophomore tight end Eli Raridon.

The Irish tight end room entered 2023 with the daunting task of attempting to replace the production of All-American Michael Mayer. Raridon found himself on the periphery of conversations about who would get the bulk of the playing time at the position. It wasn't because of a lack of ability. Raridon was ranked by 247Sports as the No. 2 tight end in the class of 2022. He was highly regarded by the Irish coaching staff as a blocker and receiver.

But Raridon has faced difficult circumstances since the beginning of fall camp. In addition to the several more experienced players positioned in front of him on the depth chart, Raridon began the season working through a long rehab process after suffering two ACL tears less than a year apart. He was expected to be cleared for action midseason. But even then, he was not viewed as someone likely to be a major contributor until next year.

But senior Kevin Bauman was lost for the year just prior to Notre Dame’s season opener. Like Raridon, Bauman tore his ACL for the second time in as many seasons. Junior Mitchell Evans stepped up to emerge as the Irish’s leading receiver for most of the year. But improbably, Evans also tore his ACL in Notre Dame’s win against Pitt. Finally, sophomore Holden Staes, who filled in for Evans at times throughout the season, entered the transfer portal.

So as the Irish prepare to face off against Oregon State in the Sun Bowl, Raridon has been thrust into the spotlight as the clear-cut leader of the tight end room. He will likely be counted on as a top target for sophomore quarterback Steve Angeli among Notre Dame’s depleted skill position groups. Despite the rapid nature of Raridon’s ascent from being fourth on the depth chart and recovering from a major injury in August to starting in a bowl game in December, his teammates and coaches have total confidence in his ability to rise to the occasion and continue the tradition of elite tight end play at Notre Dame.

Just as importantly, he has that same confidence in himself. Part of that comes from having gone through the experience of recovering from two serious knee injuries, which Raridon credits with helping him develop a sense of mental toughness.

“It is really tough, doing it two times. Mentally, it has helped me [improve my ability to] overcome adversity,” he said before the season. “Being out for a year and a couple months off two ACL [tears] and 15 months of rehab, it’s really hard and you have to do a good job of keeping your spirits up.”

Even as he moved closer to returning to the field, he continued to attack the rehab process with the same intensity to ensure that when the time came for his name to be called, he would have no lingering doubts about whether his knee could hold up.

“Before I get back there, I just want to be fully healthy,” Raridon said at the time. “I don’t want to have any concerns with my knee. I want to feel 100%. I don’t want even a little pain. I just want to feel confident and ready to go.”

That pain-free moment finally arrived in early October. Raridon made his first appearance of the season in Notre Dame’s loss against Louisville. His true breakout, though, came when he made his first career start against Wake Forest on Senior Day.

On Notre Dame’s second drive, he caught a 9-yard pass from graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman for his first career reception. Early in the third quarter, the Irish defense forced and recovered a fumble that set the offense up with advantageous field position in the Wake Forest red zone. On the ensuing play, Hartman faked a handoff before lofting a perfect pass to the left corner of the end zone. Raridon was there to haul it in for a 19-yard touchdown.

“I really wasn’t expecting to get the ball. It was a play-action play and I was running a corner route, looked up and the ball was already out. After that, I don’t really remember what happened,” Raridon said about the touchdown. “I kind of blacked out, it was just a really cool moment for me. It was just an unreal moment and I’m super happy about it, and I just can’t thank my teammates and coaches enough for believing in me through all that’s happened this year.”

He would finish the day with 3 receptions for 39 yards and that touchdown. After the game, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman spoke about his growth throughout the season.

“It wasn't one thing, it was just an accumulation of weeks and practices. When he finally was cleared to play and from where he was then to now, it's just a process of him gaining that confidence,” Freeman said about Raridon. “And he's not at his full potential yet. He'll continue to gain that confidence, but I think today was a great reflection of how far he's come since he's been cleared medically. For him to have some of those catches and get hit low, it gives him confidence [to say], ‘Hey, I'm going to be just fine.’”

He'll look to make a similar impact on Friday. But that will be made more difficult by the opt-outs of several offensive starters and the departure of offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Gerad Parker to become head coach at Troy.

“It’s definitely been different, we have pretty much a whole new team,” Raridon said on Tuesday. “It’s been weird with the offense — a lot of guys that are new faces — but the players and coaches have done a great job [dealing] with all the distractions, just keeping focused and getting our work done. I feel really confident about where we are right now.”

Despite how things looked at the beginning of the year, Raridon is not one of those new faces on offense. He’s a proven contributor who could be a difference-maker in the Irish passing game against the Beavers.

“It was really special for me, important in the way that I’m more confident in how I play now, I know what I can do,” Raridon said about his expanded role in the offense over the final weeks of the regular season. “It’s been really important for how I’ve practiced and how I’ve played in games.”

For the first time all season, Hartman won’t be in the backfield on Friday. But if Angeli finds himself facing pressure from the Oregon State defense, he can look for No. 9 downfield and know that he has a target that he can trust to make a play.

To conclude his press conference on Tuesday, Raridon delivered a message to the Notre Dame fanbase.

“We’re gonna give it our all on Friday, and go Irish.”

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