Jeff Samardzija shares recipe for double duty with Notre Dame's Cole Kmet

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In the time before Cole Kmet actually put his long-time, two-sport dream into motion, the Notre Dame football tight end/baseball left-handed pitcher tracked down Jeff Samardzija’s cell phone number and picked his brain for a template for success.

Twenty-two and 2/3 innings and 10 mostly high-leverage relief appearances later, the mechanics of how the 6-foot-6, 255-pound freshman juggles a 3.5 GPA in the College of Arts and Letters with burgeoning futures in both sports is becoming less compelling than where all this might be headed.

Perhaps because of how seamlessly the Lake Barrington, Ill., product makes it appear, from the outside looking in — the baseball part consisting of a 2.78 ERA, ninth-best in the ACC, with three saves against three teams that reached the Super Regional level of the NCAA Tournament last season (LSU, Florida State and Wake Forest).

“Making sure I stay on top of my meals, keeping my weight up,” Kmet said of the toughest aspect to date, Sunday after a 9-3 Irish ACC baseball loss to Wake Forest at frigid and near-empty Eck Stadium. “That (eating) has been the thing I tend to forget sometimes.”

That wasn’t part of Samardzija’s advice packet during their two phone exchanges. The takeaways there, from the former Irish All-America wide receiver and current Major League starting pitcher, were making sure Kmet doesn’t stop going to class and not being afraid to ask for help.

What Kmet made clear with his words Sunday is that he isn’t merely dabbling in baseball.

He’s in it for the long haul and fully plans to be living the double life two springs from now when younger brother and Irish baseball verbal commitment, St. Viator High standout infielder Casey Kmet, is in his freshman season with ND baseball.

What the elder Kmet suggested with his pitching Sunday and the nine appearances that preceded it is that there’s a ceiling in baseball worth getting excited about.

That’s especially plausible, considering Kmet didn’t start honing in on pitching until Jan. 4, a few days after ND’s Citrus Bowl win in football over LSU, and didn’t have his first-ever official practice with his Irish baseball teammates until roughly two weeks later.

“I did a little stuff here on Sundays (during football season) when we had the day off, just to kind of get my mind off football sometimes,” Kmet said, “but pretty much the bulk of my stuff started right after the (football) season ended.”

And the whispers are already starting: Can Cole Kmet be Jeff Samardzija good?

“As far as the baseball part of it? Yeah, maybe,” said ND head baseball coach Mik Aoki, who coached against Samardzija, currently with the San Francisco Giants, in college over a decade ago while heading Boston College’s program.

“We’re projecting a guy who’s been in the big leagues now, what, (10) years and has made $200 million or whatever the heck that he’s made, so that’s a pretty big projection.

“And I think Cole certainly has some athletic ability and he’s got the makeup to be able to do it.”

That makeup is what drives the possibility for both baseball and football greatness. On the football end, through ND’s first five of 15 spring practices, Kmet has turned a chase up the depth chart, after established senior tight end Alizé Mack, into an outright competition.

“Catches the ball, soft hands. He’s physical at the point of attack,” ND head football coach Brian Kelly remarked after Saturday’s practice. “And when he catches the ball, he runs through tacklers, which in itself is pretty impressive, right?”

Every bit as impressive was Kmet’s college baseball debut.

It came in game two of the season against former ND head coach Paul Mainieiri’s ranked LSU team in front of the perennial baseball power’s sixth-largest crowd ever (12,223) in Baton Rouge.

Kmet pitched four innings of shutout relief in a 10-5 Irish uprising, yielding a hit and two walks and striking out three.

“There were two times he went to 3-0 counts,” Aoki recalled. “And in talking to coach Mainieri after, he’s like, ‘I gave them the 3-0 take. I gave them the 3-1 take, and he comes back and he finishes those hitters every time.’

“For a freshman to do that in front of 12,000 people at a place where LSU has really become accustomed to getting walk-off wins, that’s pretty special there.

“While the curveball could get a little sharper and the change-up could certainly get a little better and all those types of things, he’s got the most important thing. He’s got the mental toughness to go out there and compete.”

On Sunday at Eck Stadium, where the first-pitch weather was 34 degrees with a 24-degree wind chill, Kmet labored during his one inning of work, that started in the eighth inning of the one-sided loss and ended with nobody on and one out in the top of the ninth.

But he’s added three to four miles per hour on his fastball, now in the low 90s, from where it was last June, when he led a 15-loss St. Viator team to an Illinois Class 3A state title.

Kmet’s line on Sunday: One inning, three hits, one earned run, a walk and two strikeouts to end a week in which he made three relief appearances in baseball and had three spring football practice sessions, with Kmet turning down Kelly’s offer to opt out of Saturday’s football practice.

“I think it’s just sort of ongoing, evolving and — most importantly — a conversation with the student-athlete to make sure he’s in a good place,” Aoki said of coaching the two-sport athlete, with outfielder/wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., and basketball small forward/pitcher Pat Connaughton preceding Kmet on Aoki’s watch.

“At the end of the day, they have such a passion to want to do it (make the two-sport thing work), they sort of figure it out.”

The next thing to sort out for Aoki is if Kmet’s role will change once the football team concludes its spring practices with the April 21 Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium. From April 22 on, the Irish baseball team (10-12 overall, 4-5 ACC) will still have 13 regular-season games left, including 10 ACC matchups.

To this point, Kmet’s appearances have ranged from anywhere from six to 82 pitches, and Aoki toyed with the idea of converting him into a starter come May.

But the coach has kind of fallen in love with the notion that he can use Kmet in multiple games during a weekend series or ride him for multiple innings in a single weekend game when needed.

Less clear is if Kmet could actually evolve into a pitcher/position player. The latter was actually his stronger suit in high school, but the batting swing translating to college tends to be more difficult than pitching for multi-sport college athletes. No one is ruling that out for the future, though.

Yet to even be discussed is whether Kmet will eventually add significant innings in future baseball seasons.

Samardzija went from 64 innings his freshman spring in 2004 to 78 2/3 in 2005 to 97 2/3 in 2006 after which he was drafted in the fifth round by the Chicago Cubs. In the spring of 2005, he missed none of the 15 football practices. In 2006, he missed nine.

All of those hypotheticals can wait for Kmet, who had two catches for 14 yards last fall in football and an incomplete pass on a trick play for Kelly’s 10-3 Irish.

“I’m just making sure I’m having fun with it is the main thing,” Kmet said.

And both Kelly and Aoki said they’re having fun watching it all unfold.

“The one thing that I think all three have in common,” Aoki said of Hunter, Connaughton and Kmet, “is that they’re phenomenal kids.

“No one in our clubhouse was jealous or envious or ticked off that they may have lost some innings or some at-bats or whatever it happened to be. They’re humble and they’re willing to work hard and do anything you ask them to.

“I think that’s a really big part of it. If some guy comes in saying, ‘Hey I’m a hotshot and here to bless you with my presence,’ I think most of our clubhouse would tell the guy to go and take a long walk. And so it makes it so much easier that Cole is just a really, really good kid.”

Notre Dame freshman football tight end Cole Kmet continues to excel as a relief pitcher for the Irish baseball team. (Photo courtesy of Fighting Irish Media)