NFL draftees Cole Kmet, Chase Claypool tip their caps to Notre Dame's Matt Balis
He wasn’t in the room for the hugs and the shower of congratulations in the moment — not even virtually — but Matt Balis was most assuredly with new NFL draftees Cole Kmet and Chase Claypool Friday night.
Kmet went 43rd overall to the Chicago Bears, the first tight end off the board in the 2020 NFL Draft, and wide receiver Claypool went six picks later in the second round to Pittsburgh.
A common thread for the pre-pandemic, pre-draft workout partners Kmet and Claypool was their effusive gratitude in Balis helping them get to this moment.
“The way he and his staff develop you as an athlete is pretty remarkable,” Kmet said of Notre Dame’s director of football performance since the 2016-17 offseason. “You can see the difference over the years.
“I mean, I came in at around 240 (pounds), and I was 260 at the (NFL) combine, so a 20-pound gain. And I was jumping higher than when I came in. I was jumping farther than when I came in. I was running faster than when I came in.
“So all those types of things, coach Balis did over my three years were obviously really helpful. He’s got a great plan in there, and he’ll just continue to pump out guys at the combine that can continue to perform really well.”
Defensive end Julian Okwara, the consensus top Irish prospect going into the 2019 season, was the third ND player to be selected Friday night. He went to Detroit with the second pick of the third round and 67th selection overall.
There he'll join brother Romeo Okwara, a fifth-year NFL veteran defensive end who went undrafted in 2016. Romeo, with the Lions since 2018, signed a two-year contract extension in March. Because of their age difference, the brothers had never previously been teammates.
"I really can’t believe it," Romeo said on the ABC draft telecast Friday night. "It’s something we’ve both dreamed of. We’ve never played with each other at any level. It’s something that’s amazing."
A total of seven Irish players are expected to be selected in the three-day, seven round, 255-player draft before it concludes Saturday evening. Cornerback Troy Pride Jr., defensive end Khalid Kareem and safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott are the most likely of the 12 ND draft hopefuls to hear their names during rounds 4-7 on Saturday.
Kmet, meanwhile, becomes Notre Dame’s ninth straight tight end starter to eventually get drafted. The last not to was former coach Tyrone Willingham’s No. 1 tight end in the 2003 season, Billy Palmer.
Since Irv Smith went 20th overall and in the first round to the New Orleans Saints in 1993, only Tyler Eifert (first round, 21st in 2013) and John Carlson (second round, 38th in 2008) went earlier in a draft than Kmet.
“It’s amazing, a dream come true for me,” Kmet, an Arlington Heights, Ill., product said Friday night. “I think my mom was the most pleased, because I’m going to be staying around home. We’re all Bears fans.
“When I got a call, the call dropped. Then I got a FaceTime call, and it dropped. Then a Facetime call came in again, and it was coach (Matt) Nagy and he said they were going to make me the 43rd pick."
The Bears didn't have a first-round pick in 2020, because they traded it to the Raiders on Aug. 31, 2018 in the Khalil Mack deal. Thus Kmet became their first pick of the draft. He's the first Notre Dame player to be drafted by that franchise since offensive guard Mike Gandy in 2001.
Kmet will join former ND teammates Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher, undrafted free agents in 2019, on the Bears roster. Chicago has signed tight ends Jimmy Graham and Demetrius Harris in the offseason. Adam Shaheen was left from 2019 roster, while the Bears recently released Trey Burton.
"Just talking to the staff at Notre Dame, we really feel like he’s getting better, that he’s just scratching the surface," Bears general manager Ryan Pace said. "To be honest, you could even see it this year on tape when you watched some of the early games. You could really see his game taking off on all levels, and Cole will say that too.
"He’s definitely an ascending player. I can’t imagine being a two-sport athlete at a major university like Notre Dame and trying to do both. Now he's just focusing on football. You just talk to everybody at Notre Dame about the person that he is and the approach that he has. I think think that’s all going to lead to him ascending as we go forward."
Claypool was the 11th wide receiver taken in a historically deep wide receiver crop. Thirteen wideouts went in the first two rounds. In Pittsburgh, Claypool will join former Irish players Stephon Tuitt, a defensive end and second-round pick in 2014, and Jarron Jones, a defensive lineman at ND who's now playing on the offensive line and who was recently signed as a free agent.
"Sharp young man." Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert said of the 6-foot-4, 233-pound Canada native. "He has great size. He has great speed. He has great competitiveness. We really got up close to him at the Senior Bowl. The work he did on the special teams really stood out in the practices.
"Of course, we knew about his receiving abilities, but when you saw him up close working the way that he did in the special teams parts of practice, it really showed the competitiveness that this young man has to go along with his size, his speed and his receiving abilities."
Claypool heard directly from a couple of his future teammates from the Steelers' offense on Friday night.
"I’m not too involved with what they are doing with the X’s and O’s, but I’m sure it is not going to take long to learn," Claypool said. "(QB) Ben Roethlisberger called me right after I got off the phone with the Steelers. He introduced himself and congratulated me. And then (wide receiver) JuJu (Smith-Schuster) texted me. They have been really good so far reaching out and making it pretty special."
Claypool also lauded ND's Balis as special.
“I think he and his staff made me an all-around athlete, working on my inefficiencies,” he said. “And I think that just made the transition from college a lot easier and allowed me to be more efficient in how I trained.”
Remaining Rounds: Saturday noon (Rounds 4-7)
Where: Originally scheduled for Las Vegas, the draft will be virtual from various locations. That includes NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announcing picks 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.