Long and wonky road for Chase Claypool and Cole Kmet to arrive at NFL Draft night

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The dream still felt untainted to Cole Kmet on the first day it had a chance to merge with reality.

Even if the runway to the three-day 2020 NFL Draft, which kicked off unhurriedly and virtually at 8 EST Thursday night and finished after midnight, was more than a bit wonky because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m back at home in Chicago,” said Kmet, who had an outside shot of becoming the first Notre Dame tight end to evolve into a first-round draft choice Thursday night since Irv Smith in 1993, but instead goes into day 2 of the draft on Friday night still available.

“I’ve got a gym set up at my grandma’s house, and I go to a park nearby and go and run around. So that’s kind of what it’s come down to.

“No, my grandma doesn’t use the weights,” he said with a laugh during a phone interview Thursday afternoon before getting a lift in himself, “but she makes the food afterwards. That’s the best part of this experience. As for the rest of it, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Kmet’s former Irish teammate and pre-pandemic predraft workout partner Chase Claypool has even more limited options.

After returning to his hometown of Abbotsford, Canada — a city in British Columbia that snuggles the U.S. border — the former Irish wide receiver spent the first 14 of his 18 days at his mother’s house in strict quarantine, per Canadian guidelines.

“You could get a pretty big fine, or even go to jail, if you just go outside when you’re in isolation,” Claypool said Thursday.

Inside, he has dumbbells he works out with in his bedroom. He also drew a line on his floor to use to do footwork drills. Along the way, the 6-foot-4 Claypool has dropped five pounds from the 238 he registered at the weigh-in of the NFL Scouting Combine two months ago.

“It’s not that exciting,” he said of his daily routine, “but it’s all worth it, because of what’s coming up the next three days.”

Claypool, like Kmet, occasionally popped up as a first-round projection in the mock draft tsunami in the weeks leading up to the actual draft. The other Notre Dame player with a outside remote chance of hearing his name called Thursday night was defensive end Julian Okwara.

All of them had some first-round mojo for different reasons — Kmet because he was considered by many the best prospect in his position group, Claypool because of his rare size/speed/physicality trifecta even in a historically deep wide receiver crop, and Okwara because his physical tools scream upside.

Predictably, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow went to the Cincinnati Bengals with the first overall pick, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announcing the first-round selections from his basement.

The most likely scenario involving Notre Dame’s 12 draft hopefuls was that none of them would join Burrow in Thursday’s first round, but that as many as five could go on day two (rounds 2-3 Friday night), and that as many as seven might be picked by the time the 255th and final pick was made Saturday.

“I think this draft more than any other, it’s hard to predict what round and where anyone’s going, because there are so many unknowns,” said former Notre Dame safety Kyle McCarthy, currently the director of football at the Athletes First sports agency.

“The lack of pro days, the lack of team visits meant a result of there’s a lot less information out there. So that means more guesswork.”

McCarthy personally represents Kmet and Claypool as well as former Irish players and NFL veterans DeShone Kizer, James Onwualu, Matthias Farley and Sheldon Day.

“Talking about Cole and Chase specifically, they’re such impressive people,” McCarthy said, “and I think they would have really shown well to the NFL owners that they would have met on those team visits and things of that nature.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that these guys didn’t have a chance to do those kinds of things, because that’s just an opportunity for these guys to impress decision-makers.”

Claypool, who got in an in-person workout with the Buffalo Bills in South Bend in early March before the stay-at-home orders and tightened travel restrictions, met with 15 other teams since then via Zoom video conferencing.

Kmet said he did Zoom with seven teams, and met with another handful of them on regular phone calls.

Earlier this week, Kmet made a tape of younger brother Casey throwing him passes to send out to NFL teams.

“Just kind of a last-minute reminder that I was staying in shape,” Cole said.

He returns the favor by playing toss with Casey, a freshman catcher on the Notre Dame baseball team who is rehabbing from an ankle injury suffered last fall, and also hitting some ground balls to him.

Casey, meanwhile, claimed dibs on the 31 NFL caps Cole won’t be putting on his head once he is drafted. Kmet, Claypool and Okwara are three of the 58 players who are participating in the virtual green room concept throughout the draft.

ESPN, ABC and the NFL Network — all collaborating on the production aspects and some on-air personnel at different points — shipped each of those 58 prospects all 32 team caps as well as microphones, cellphones, headsets, light stands and tripods.

Kmet said his mom helped him unpack and set up his media kit. Dad Frank and uncle Jeff Zgonina are providing the draft day perspective. Both were standout defensive linemen at Purdue.

Frank Kmet was selected in the fourth round of the 1992 NFL Draft by Buffalo. Zgonina went in the seventh round to Pittsburgh the following spring.

“There’s a lot of anxiety that goes with this draft experience, they told me,” Kmet said. “Waiting for your name to be called. But they’ve got some fun stories too.

“And when the draft is over, I heard we’re not going to have minicamps or OTAs over the next month or so. This is kind of a fluid situation, so we’ll see what happens.

“Obviously, I’m looking forward to a time when we can kind of get back to normal and start playing some football.”

Notre Dame tight end Cole Kmet (84) was expecting to hear his named called sometime during the first three rounds of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool (83) catches a touchdown pass during ND’s 33-9 Camping World Bowl romp over Iowa State, Saturday in Orlando, Fla.

Remaining Rounds: Friday 7 p.m. (Rounds 2-3), and Saturday noon (Rounds 4-7)

Where: Originally scheduled for Las Vegas, the draft will be virtual from various locations. That included NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announcing first-round picks Thursday night from his basement in Westchester County, New York.

TV: ABC, ESPN, NFL Network

Live Stream: WatchESPN app, NFL Network app, ESPN.com. NFL.com, various streaming services

Notre Dame draft hopefuls: LB Asmar Bilal, WR Chase Claypool, S Jalen Elliott, WR Chris Finke, S Alohi Gilman, DE Jamir Jones, RB Tony Jones Jr., DE Khalid Kareem, TE Cole Kmet, DE Julian Okwara, CB Troy Pride Jr., CB Donte Vaughn.