Noie: Group effort from tight ends good for No. 3 Notre Dame
It’s a relatively stress-free 30-something mile drive from the far northwest suburbs of Chicago to Ryan Field on the campus of Northwestern University.
Just flow east on Lake-Cook Road, then slide south on the Edens Expressway. Exit at Old Orchard Road eastbound and wind through some surface streets — a quick left here, a quicker right there — until the football stadium appears on the left. If you hit Lake Michigan (not literally) it’s time to turn around.
It’s a ride that Notre Dame sophomore tight end Cole Kmet planned to make occasionally from his Barrington home. Maybe catch a Big Ten football game when his high school schedule allowed. Especially when one team — Purdue — was in town. That’s where his father, Frank, was a standout defensive lineman. Each time Purdue popped onto the Northwestern schedule, the Kmets made plans to go. Drive over. Tailgate. Soak up a fall college football Saturday.
The plans always crumbled for one reason or another. Mainly, one reason.
“My dad always tried to go and then it would always fall through,” Kmet said. “He just didn’t want to make the drive. He’d rather watch it from home.”
Going to college football games in and around the Chicago area also didn’t rank high on Kmet’s must-do list as he was becoming a premier tight end prospect at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights. After playing a high school game on a Friday night, then having team meetings on Saturday mornings, he also preferred the couch to the grandstands of Evanston or Champaign or over the border up in Madison to watch Big Ten football.
Heck, the first time Kmet even attended a college game came when he was in high school and made his official visit to Notre Dame.
“I just never made it out,” Kmet said of seeing games while growing up in the ‘burbs.
Kmet, his parents and his family, and a host of friends will find their way to Chicago’s North Shore on Saturday when No. 3 Notre Dame (8-0) makes its first visit to Ryan Field (once known to locals as Dyche Stadium) since 1976.
One week after the Irish embarked on their longest road trip of the season (a combined 4,300 miles aboard a 737 to and from San Diego), they take their shortest (a two-hour, 103-mile bus ride around Lake Michigan) to Evanston. The team will headquarter in a downtown Chicago hotel. It’s the first time that Notre Dame plays in the Chicago area since 2012 when it hosted Miami (Fla.) at Soldier Field and the first time Kmet plays as a collegiate back in his home state.
None of that really matters. It might to his family. But not to him. It can’t.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Kmet said. “It’s a big game, obviously, (but) you treat it like just another game. This is a unique game and you have to bring energy.”
While Kmet never has seen Northwestern, fellow tight end Nic Weishar knows the campus well. His mother, Jean, played volleyball for the Wildcats. His grandfather played football there. Weishar was recruited by coach Pat Fitzgerald. He spent a chunk of time watching the Wildcats growing up in south-suburban Midlothian. If he wasn’t watching from the Ryan Field stands, he was tuning in for their early kickoff on TV.
“I was always kind of a fan,” Weishar said. “They were always popular in my household. I have a lot of respect for the program and the coaching staff.”
It seems like another lifetime ago, but Weishar was a freshman on the Notre Dame team that lost to Northwestern, 43-40 in overtime, in South Bend in 2014. Saturday is the first time the teams have played since. It will be a sellout. It will be on national television. It will be at night. It will be big. There’s a lot riding on this one for both teams, but when is that not the case at Notre Dame?
“Being around five years, I’ve played in a lot of big games,” Weishar said. “This is a huge game for us (but) you just gotta treat it as another big game.”
Another game means another opportunity for Weishar and Kmet and sophomore Brock Wright, though not Alize Mack (more on that in a minute) to make a difference from their tight end spot. Given their Chicago connections — they’re among 15 players on the Irish roster who hail from the metropolitan area — it was only natural that Weishar and Kmet were available during Wednesday’s media session. But there was another reason. Both, as well as Wright and Mack, have been really good this season. As individuals. As a unit.
Through eight games, Irish tight ends have combined for 42 catches for 365 yards and five touchdowns. A year ago in 13 games, Irish tight ends made 45 catches for 476 yards and four touchdowns. Kmet is coming off a career-high four catches for 31 yards against Navy. He also was thisclose from his first college touchdown catch only to lose his balance looking for an underthrown offering on a stick route.
It helps that offensive coordinator Chip Long also doubles as the tight ends coach, so he has first-hand knowledge of who can do what, but it also helps that the group has made good on a preseason promise to make a difference. Not just one week here and then one week there. It’s been a consistent effort from Michigan through Navy. It’s not always been the same guy, but it’s been at least one guy who’s done something special.
“It’s cool,” Weishar said of the group’s work to date. “That’s something that we thought we’d be able to do. When we’re out there making plays and being physical, that’s kind of how the whole offense rolls.”
Having Mack and Kmet and Weishar and Wright all involved in the run game — like that three-tight end, goal-line jumbo package look the Irish showed in San Diego — has made life easier for quarterback Ian Book. As he rolls through his progression reads on a pass play, Book scans the scene and knows that if Miles Boykin or Chris Finke or Chase Claypool are covered, he always can check down to one of his tight ends for another certain completion.
Prior to the Wake Forest game, Mack was extremely chatty about the tight ends getting more chances. Now we know why. The group serves as a security blanket for Book. Need a completion? Find Mack. Or Kmet. Everyone else covered and time running short? Go to a tight end.
Book will deliver the ball; they’ll deliver another catch.
The group has averaged 6.8 catches for 52.6 yards a game since Book jumped behind center in Week Four. Prior to that, they averaged three catches for 34 yards the first three games.
“Every day, we’re trying to find a way to get them the ball,” Book said. “Just from a confidence standpoint, knowing whoever’s in there is going to make the play, not having to think twice about anything.
“It helps our offense a lot.”
Mack, Weishar and Wright all played in the first eight games. Getting to nine won’t happen Saturday for Mack, who spent the week in concussion protocol after getting dinged in the Navy game. He won’t be cleared to play this week. Kmet suffered a high ankle sprain against Ball State, which usually necessitates four weeks recovery before being back at full strength. Kmet missed only two games.
“A great athlete and a quick healer,” Weishar said. “He’s been unbelievable.”
Same can be said about the tight ends room from Monday through Friday. Kmet admitted that it’s been a fun place to be this season because of the diversity in answering any adversity. Weishar’s arguably been the best blocker; Mack’s been the main pass catcher (27 for 250 yards and one touchdown). Everyone gets a chance to do something once the game plan goes in.
When the Irish can go with two or three tight ends at a time, it speaks to having what they’ve been working toward since preseason — ownership of the offense.
They block. They catch. They make a difference.
“It’s pretty cool, huh?” Weishar said. “Coach Long does different stuff every week and to be able to mix it up has been pretty fun.”