Future Notre Dame TE Cole Kmet has double vision on football, baseball

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

A little over two weeks before Cole Kmet takes his first class at Notre Dame and enters the six-man mosh pit of a tight end competition, baseball consumes him.

And it won’t necessarily go away once Arlington Heights (Ill.) St. Viator High’s encore run at history runs its course sometime over the next eight days.

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound senior wants to take a stab at being a two-sport athlete at Notre Dame, a school with plenty of recent precedents of both football/baseball flameouts and success stories.

Former wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., for instance, at age 21 is trying to gain traction for his professional baseball career in the Los Angeles Angels’ extended spring training, the lowest rung on the farm system ladder, after garnering playing time in just 23 games (one start) and only 12 at-bats in an Irish uniform.

Jeff Samardzija, meanwhile, is still pitching in the majors at age 32 for the San Francisco Giants, more than a decade after exhausting his football eligibility as an All-America wide receiver.

“To me, it’s a lot harder being a position player than a pitcher if you’re trying to play football and baseball,” said Evan Sharpley, a former quarterback/infielder for the Irish, “especially if the coaching staffs don’t have a feel of how to balance both.”

Kmet has the talent to take either path. On the mound, the left-hander averages 87-91 mph with his fastball and has fashioned a 6-3 record with a 2.06 ERA this season for St. Viator (21-15). His strikeout-to-walk ratio in 51 innings is 87 to 18.

A center fielder when he’s not pitching, Kmet is hitting .435, with 28 of his 47 hits going for extra bases, including 11 home runs. He has 41 RBIs and is 14-of-17 in stolen base attempts.

“Not to take anything away from his pitching — because he’s an outstanding pitcher — but I think he’d be a wonderful position player and hitter at the college level,” St. Viator coach Mike Manno said. “That’s where I think he’s going to shine.”

Kmet’s immediate focus is Saturday’s Chicago Lake View sectional championship game against Grayslake Central (21-15), a game in which he’ll play center field. Should St. Viator prevail, it will advance to Monday’s 3A quarterfinals, with Kmet on the mound trying to pitch the Lions into the Final Four for the second year in a row.

The state semis and title game are set for June 9-10 in Joliet, Ill.

Prior to the Lions’ run to a fourth-place finish last season, St. Viator hadn’t reached the Final Four since 1965. That’s five years before Kmet’s father, Frank, a former standout defensive lineman at Purdue, was born.

“He’s a once in a lifetime player,” Manno said of Cole. “And I’m not talking about just being an athlete. He’s such a unique kid. He’s well beyond his years. Tremendous leadership qualities, has a great sense of selflessness with other people.

“It’s all about team first. With all the accolades he gets, it’s always been about the team. It’s never been about him.”

Kmet had a home run, a double and four RBIs on Wednesday in an 8-3 tourney victory over Mundelein Carmel (23-8), a team that came in with a 13-game winning streak and that had drubbed St. Viator twice during the regular season.

Kmet, who didn’t pitch in either of those games, hurled 5 2/3 innings Wednesday before having to be removed once he reached the state-mandated pitch limit of 105.

His younger brother, Casey, is a sophomore third baseman and projects as a future Division I baseball player, though he does play football as well.

“He’s about half the size of Cole,” Manno said.

College football coaches, including ND’s Brian Kelly, love to recruit athletes who don’t specialize in one sport. The NFL loves them, too.

Thirty of the 32 first-round selections in the 2017 NFL Draft were multi-sport athletes in high school and 88 percent over the entire seven rounds fit that profile.

“I just think being able to compete in multiple sports — for any athlete, even one as gifted as Cole — only creates that competitiveness throughout the year,” Manno said. “It makes them better athletes. It creates that drive to really compete at the highest level.

“And that drive stays with them as they move up the levels, from high school to college to pro.”

Yet when they arrive at college, some football coaches are anxious to put the brakes on the multi-sport aspirations.

Sharpley experienced both sides of that coin.

The coaches who recruited him, baseball’s Paul Mainieri and football’s Tyrone Willingham, embraced the two-sport experience. But Willingham was fired before Sharpley enrolled, and Mainieri left for LSU after Sharpley’s freshman year.

They were succeeded by Charlie Weis and Dave Schrage, respectively.

“I would have loved to have Paul Mainieri in my corner for four years,” Sharpley said. “And coach Willingham, having been a two-sport athlete himself, had a real good feel for not only the demands of the two sports, but also the demands in the classroom.

“Not to throw coach Weis or coach Schrage under the bus, but they just didn’t have that experience. Honestly, my sophomore year was the most challenging, because I was trying to do everything in both sports.

“If I was going to give advice to Cole, I would say, ‘Don’t try to do everything. You’re going to have to say no to a couple of things in one sport or another, especially when you’re in season.

“‘When you’re in fall football, it’s all football. Once you get into the spring, you’ve got to say no to football and focus on baseball.’ That was the biggest challenge for me. I was saying yes for everything.”

The only current Irish football player involved in two sports is sophomore-to-be Troy Pride Jr., who runs indoor and outdoor track. Braden Lenzy, a 2018 wide receiver commit, aspires to double in track and field as well.

As far as the football/baseball pairing, Notre Dame has even had tight ends do both sports, notably in the Holtz Era. Irv Smith and Frank Jacobs, in fact, both got drafted in baseball, with the latter playing in the minor leagues for several years after setting the single-season home run record at ND.

Kmet’s stronger suit is still football at least at this point. Rivals ranked him as the No. 3 tight end prospect nationally in the 2017 class, with Kmet collecting 50 receptions for 802 yards and five TDs, despite occasionally being triple-teamed.

He even dabbled as a quarterback the final game of his junior season at St. Viator.

“I think whatever Cole decides to do, because of the kind of kid he is,” Manno said, “he has a chance to be really, really good.”

Future Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet also wants to play baseball for the Irish. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)