FOOTBALL

Healthy TE Cole Kmet finally gets chance to live up to hype at Notre Dame

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Cole Kmet couldn’t be sure what the first hit would feel like.

The Notre Dame tight end spent six weeks recovering from a broken collarbone before making his season debut in last week’s game at Georgia.

He had been X-rayed, scanned and assured by Notre Dame’s medical staff that his collarbone had healed enough to withstand the physical punishment of a football game. But he didn’t have any test collisions in practice to prepare him.

Kmet insists he wasn’t nervous.

“I had a mindset of you just have to go for it,” Kmet said. “They told me it was good. It was going to hold up. I just went for it.”

The medical staff did the worrying on his behalf. On the very first play of the game, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Kmet caught a short pass from quarterback Ian Book, bounced off a hit from safety J.R. Reed, spun around and was finally pulled down by a pair of Georgia defenders after an eight-yard gain.

“(The medical staff) came up to me on Sunday,” Kmet said, “and they were like, ‘You got hit that first time and we were holding our breath. But you popped right up.’”

Kmet knew he would be in the mix right away in Saturday’s 23-17 loss to Georgia. Last Thursday, offensive coordinator Chip Long revealed the game plan calling for Kmet to be the first read on the opening play.

“We didn’t take it easy on him,” said head coach Brian Kelly.

After that first play, Kmet knew he would be involved heavily. He knew how much Long, who also coaches the tight ends, valued what he did in helping set the tone.

“Usually with coach Long, if you make one play, you break a tackle, he’s going to come right back to you,” Kmet said. “That’s what obviously happened.”

Notre Dame came back to Kmet repeatedly. He caught Book’s first three passes and turned them into 33 yards.

Book threw passes intended for Kmet 11 times. Only wide receiver Chase Claypool (12) had more passes thrown his way. Not bad for his first game of the season.

“That’s what I was anticipating,” Kmet said. “I picked up where I wanted to. It was a good start.”

Kmet finished the game with nine catches for 108 yards, both team highs, and one touchdown. Those were all single-game career highs for Kmet. He even tied the single-game Notre Dame record for receptions by a tight end. Kmet became the second tight end in program history to catch nine passes in a game. Only Ken MacAfee, against Purdue in 1977, matched that production.

“We didn’t wait too long,” Kelly said. “We put him right in the frying pan. I think he’s got a lot of positive feelings about what he can do and how he can impact the offense.”

Great expectations

Kmet came to Notre Dame wanting to be a part of the tight end tradition the football program has cultivated.

Playing at Arlington Heights (Ill.) St. Viator, Kmet was ranked as one of the top tight ends in the country for the 2017 class. Both Rivals and 247Sports pegged him as the No. 3 tight end in the class and among the top 100 prospects regardless of position.

The four-star recruit wanted to be a part of a program that has now produced nine NFL Draft picks at the tight end position since 2005.

Success didn’t come right away for Kmet at Notre Dame. In his freshman season, he played in all 13 games as a reserve and caught just two passes for 14 yards.

A promising sophomore season was interrupted by a high ankle sprain which knocked him out of one game and kept him sidelined for two more. Kmet looked like a tight end ready to blossom, but he registered only 15 catches for 162 yards in 11 games.

Injuries have become a recurring part of Kmet’s story. Kmet, who also plays baseball for the Irish, had to end his sophomore baseball season short in March because of soreness in his throwing (left) elbow. Kmet pitched 18 2/3 innings with a 2.89 ERA, 27 strikeouts and only three walks.

The fraying tendon didn’t prevent Kmet from participating in spring football.

“I could literally do everything but throw a baseball,” Kmet said.

Then the collarbone injury happened on the fifth day of preseason practice at the Culver Academies. Kelly spent part of the spring raving about Kmet and his expanding role in the offense. Those plans had to be put on hold.

“I was really bummed out,” Kmet said. “You have to look at it in perspective. I only missed a couple games.”

Kmet, who has been described by Kelly as a quick healer, couldn’t do much to aid his recovery from surgery on his collarbone. There’s no list of stretches or lifts to speed up the healing process.

“Last year I had that high ankle sprain,’’ he said. “You can do a lot of treatment with that and rehab. So I rehabbed the heck out of that.

“This is kind of the waiting game. It just kind of worked out where I was able to come back pretty quickly.”

Cementing his role

Not everything went smoothly for Kmet in his first game. He was flagged for false starts on three separate occasions and was lucky to get away with an early start a fourth time that wasn’t penalized.

Kmet didn’t block as well as he’d like either. He listed blocking as the first thing he wants to better within his own game. He wants to be more precise in his route running too. Another big matchup Saturday against No. 18 Virginia (4-0) would be a good time to show improvement.

“There’s a lot of stuff I can be better at,” Kmet said. “There’s always something you can be working on in your game.”

The chemistry between Book and Kmet appeared unchanged despite Kmet’s absence to start the season. Only two of Book’s passes he threw to Kmet against Georgia fell incomplete and both were broken up by safety J.R. Reed.

The seam route for Kmet worked particularly well. He recorded Notre Dame’s longest reception of the game in the fourth quarter with 31 yards on a seam route. His 28-yard reception on a seam route in the second quarter was matched only by a 28-yard completion to wide receiver Lawrence Keys III.

A completion down the seam typically comes with big collisions with a safety. Kmet’s prepared for that.

“I’d like to think I gave him a little bit of it too,’ Kmet said of the hit between him and Reed on his 31-yard catch. “If they have one high (safety) or the safety goes over to Chase, I know the ball’s probably coming to me.”

If Kmet can sharpen all of his skills, he should be a pretty complete tight end. Kelly compared Kmet to a mashup of former Irish tight ends Troy Niklas and Tyler Eifert.

Niklas, a second-round pick by the Arizona Cardinals in 2014, was more of a bruiser. Eifert, a first-round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2015, set the program record for tight end receptions (140) and receiving yards (1,840) in a career.

Now that he’s healthy, Kmet can finally prove he’s worth the hype.

“He brings that physicality and big body type tight end where he’s imposing, but still has the ability to catch and run,” Kelly said. “You’re getting kind of a combination there.”

Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet caught nine passes against Georgia last week. He caught 15 passes all of last season.
Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet (84) dressed for the New Mexico game earlier this season, but he had to wait to make his debut a week later against Georgia. Kmet spent six weeks recovering from a broken collarbone.
Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet (84) tries to hold off Georgia’s Divaad Wilson (1) during the Notre Dame-Georgia NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, inside Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.
Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet catches a pass during warmups before the Blue-Gold Game in April.
Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet caught nine passes against Georgia last week. He caught 15 passes all of last season. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA