Notebook: Cole Kmet doubles down on ascending in two sports at Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND — It’s still a pretty small sample size, but freshman Cole Kmet’s double life seems to be working for him.
Less than 48 hours after returning from spending his spring break logging 8 1/3 effective innings as a relief pitcher for the Notre Dame baseball team, Kmet was in the Loftus Center alternating first-team reps with presumptive No. 1 tight end Alizé Mack Tuesday during a spring football practice tempo drill.
At a time when depth charts are rife with mirages and experiments, Kmet’s early-spring ascending status appears to be neither.
“I know he’s getting a lot of play in terms of what he’s doing in baseball,” ND head football coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday following practice No. 3 overall this spring, but the first since March 8 and first in full pads. “But he’s equally impressive in terms of what he’s doing at tight end from a football standpoint.
“He’s smooth, catches the ball. Big, physical. He’s a really, really good player.”
Now the question becomes is all this sustainable?
Most of Kmet’s 20 1/3 innings in the ND baseball team’s first 18 games — all away from home — haven’t competed directly with football. But including Tuesday’s football practice/baseball home opener with Northern Illinois (4-14), eight of the final 13 spring practices are baseball game days.
“Cole is committed to football as No. 1 and baseball as No. 2,” Kelly said. “And whatever he can do to help that baseball team and whatever he can do with his schedule, he’s going to make it work.”
Former Irish All-America wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, currently a starting pitcher with the San Francisco Giants, was able to do both at a high level at ND more than a decade ago.
His baseball commitment increased each year, from 64 innings his freshman year in the spring of 2004, to 78 2/3 innings in 2005 to 97 2/3 in 2006, after which he was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the fifth round and given first-round money.
Samardzija also made seven minor-league starts in the summer of 2006 before returning to play his final collegiate season of football that fall.
Kmet’s 20 1/3 innings, spread over seven appearances, ranked third on the team heading into Tuesday’s home opener for the 8-10 Irish. And there’s quality with that quantity.
The 6-foot-6, 255-pound lefty has a 2.61 earned-run averaged, 11th individually in the ACC, on a squad that carries a 5.25 team ERA. His team-leading two saves have come against teams currently ranked in the top 20 — LSU (14-7) and, this past weekend, against Florida State (16-4).
Samardzija’s college ERAs were 2.65, 3.89 and 4.33, primarily as a starter. Another two-sport star (basketball/baseball) Pat Connaughton fashioned ERAs of 3.18, 1.71 and 3.96 from 2012 to 2014 before getting drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the fourth round in 2014.
Connaughton is in his third season with the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers.
Football is projected to be Kmet’s best sport long term, though ND’s depth at his position in 2017 suppressed his opportunities.
He finished with two receptions for 14 yards on the season, and threw an incomplete pass on a trick play in the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl win over LSU.
The depth chart at tight end is still loaded, but Kmet is making a strong move upward anyway.
“Cole Kmet,” Kelly said, "looks outstanding.”
Senior Trevor Ruhland on Tuesday got first-team reps at left guard, former All-American Quenton Nelson’s old spot, as new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn continues to audition different players to join four holdovers Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars, Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey.
• Miles Boykin, Chris Finke and Michael Young were the first-team wide receivers in Tuesday’s tempo drill, but Kelly said only Boykin has separated himself as a consistent performer in that position group.
“That’s a guy who now ascends,” Kelly said of the Citrus Bowl MVP. “I think everybody else is in that process of developing to that next level.”
• Bo Bauer appears the furthest ahead of the three early-enrolled linebackers that include Jack Lamb and Ovie Oghoufo, though Kelly likes the long-term promise of all of them.
“Ovie (6-3, 217) has got some physicality issues in that he’s not ready for primetime playing,” Kelly said. “But he’s extremely athletic and he’s a really smart kid. He’s got to get bigger and stronger.
“Lamb (6-4, 216) is somebody who is extremely athletic, can run sideline to sideline, but again is he strong enough physically to take on the pounding that’s required at that position?
“I think Bauer (6-3, 217) probably combines both of those right now. His physicality is really good. He’s capable of probably playing right away, but each one them has interesting and unique traits that are going to allow them to be very successful for us.”
• Senior Shaun Crawford, who manned the nickel position last season as ND’s third cornerback, is competing this spring for a more full-time position for 2018, opposite star Julian Love.
Cornerback was ND’s position of best quality depth on either side of the ball coming into spring, with early enrolled freshman Houston Griffith further enhancing that distinction. But Kelly wants more.
“We’ve instituted a couple of new techniques,” he said. “We’re really trying to work on some things to help that play evolve to a higher level.”
• Former Irish players Josh Adams, Equanimeous St. Brown, Mike McGlinchey and Durham Smythe all took in Tuesday’s practice. The four will participate in ND’s Pro Day in varying degrees on Thursday afternoon in front of NFL scouts and personnel types.
Also scheduled to participate are Quenton Nelson, Andrew Trumbetti, Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini and former Irish quarterback Malik Zaire.
Means to an end
Daelin Hayes looked the part of a defensive end last season, but didn’t always feel that way inside.
That explains a late-season fade in which the first-year starter collected just eight of his season 30 tackles over the final five games of 2017.
“I think the only thing he’s missing really is continued confidence in the position in which he plays — not in himself,” Kelly said of the former high school five-star linebacker.
“He’s an extremely confident young man. And carries himself as such, but the positon he plays was new to him. I think the nuances of that position maybe got him a little tentative as the year went on.”
Kelly hasn’t seen that tentativeness so far through the first three spring practices.
“I think his knowledge base is so much better this year,” Kelly said. “He looks great. He’s physical and he’s playing the kind of football that we expect him to play next year right now.”
Timing is everything?
Kelly’s custom of having his 15 spring practices interrupted by the school’s spring break — a 12-day gap between practices Nos. 2 and 3 this year — rather than condensing the spring calendar into a single block has a simple objective.
Finding a couple of NCAA loopholes to spend more time and elongating the time with his team in the spring.
NCAA rules stipulate that teams have a 34-day window to stage all 15 spring practices, but the two held before spring break — March 6 and 8 — aren’t subject to that because of the spring break that followed.
Also, by staging two practices that week, it becomes a 20-hour work week in the NCAA’s eyes instead of a max of eight hours.
The Irish conclude spring practice April 21 with the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium.
“We had a conditioning test when they came back (from spring break), and they were really good,” Kelly said of the potential pitfall of backsliding during spring break. “I’m sure they had a chance to be college students on break, but they also understood how important it was to come back in good physical condition.”