Notebook: Brian Kelly isn't worried about Notre Dame TE Cole Kmet's speed in NFL

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Mike Tannenbaum wasn’t a fan of the Chicago Bears drafting Cole Kmet.

Tannenbaum, a former general manager of the New York Jets, shared his thoughts on the selection of the former Notre Dame tight end during ESPN Radio’s coverage of the NFL Draft last Friday.

“I think this is a shockingly poor pick” Tannenbaum said. “They have eight million tight ends and they have so many other needs. This blows me away. This is the worst pick of the draft. Are you kidding me? They overpaid Jimmy Graham. They overdrafted Adam Shaheen. Of all the other things they need to do, why with their first pick are they adding a guy that can’t run? This is mind-boggling to me. What does this solve?”

Tannenbaum may be right about some of the poor decisions the Bears have made at tight end in the past, but he didn’t do himself any favors by questioning Kmet’s ability to run. That comment was brought to Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s attention Tuesday during a virtual press conference with reporters to discuss his former players in the NFL.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said. “I guess Mike Tannenbaum knows more than all of the NFL teams that have evaluated him. I coached him. I don’t remember Mike being at any of our practices as (Kmet) ran down the middle of the field.

“He has plenty of speed. He’ll be able to utilize it against safeties and nickel matchups. Speed will not be the issue with Cole Kmet.”

Ironically enough, Tannenbaum himself highlighted Kmet’s 40-yard dash during the NFL Scouting Combine. Tannenbaum tweeted in February that Kmet became just the fifth tight end since 2000 to run the 40 in 4.7 seconds or less while standing at least 6-foot-6 and weighing at least 262 pounds. The 6-6, 262-pound Kmet ran a 4.7 to join Jason Witten, Kellen Davis, Brad Cottam and Rob Gronkowski with that distinction.

Kmet did struggle in the three-cone drill, which requires changing direction five times, with the second-worst time among tight ends (7.44 seconds). But Kmet showed his ability to make plays last season as a junior with 43 catches for 515 yards and six touchdowns in 11 games.

Kelly, who has coached eventual Pro Bowl tight ends Travis Kelce, Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert at Cincinnati and Notre Dame, said Kmet falls in line with those guys. Now that Kmet, who also played baseball for the Irish, will be solely focusing of football, Kelly expects him to improve in the technical aspects of route-running and in-line blocking.

Even though the Bears made Kmet the 10th tight end on their roster when he was drafted, investing an early second-round pick in Kmet means they value him over most of the others.

“You don’t make those kinds of investments unless you know what you’re getting,” Kelly said. “And what they’re getting is an athletic tight end, that is going to impact their offense immediately. He’s smart. He’s got the capabilities to get better and better as he continues to develop.

“Having a lot of tight ends on your roster is one thing. Having Cole Kmet, that’s another.”

Value in Kareem

Defensive end Khalid Kareem put his teammates first when he decided to play through a torn labrum in his left shoulder in the final four games of the season. Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery made a similar decision the previous year before entering the NFL Draft.

Those acts speak volumes to the culture that Kelly has developed at Notre Dame.

“That’s something that our guys take a great deal of pride in,” Kelly said. “If they can play through it, they’re going to try to play for their teammates.”

By postponing his surgery to the offseason, Kareem was unable to complete the drills at the NFL Combine. But if anyone needed reassurance for a decision to draft Kareem, Kelly was ready to provide it.

“Khalid’s a sneaky pass rusher, first of all. He gets off blocks,” Kelly said. “He has those innate abilities to find a way to the quarterback, find a way to the football. He’s going to be a guy that plays in this league for a while because he knows how to play the game.”

The Cincinnati Bengals selected Kareem with the first pick in the fifth round.

Brotherly love

Kelly is sure that he called Julian Okwara by his older brother’s name at some point during his Notre Dame career. Now the Detroit Lions coaching staff will have to deal with that problem after drafting Julian to join Romeo on their defense.

The differences between the two are clear, in Kelly’s opinion.

“They’re very different. Romeo is laid back and very measured and Julian can be a little bit more emotional at times,” Kelly said. “They will be a great tandem, not only on the field, but off the field. It’s just a great match.”

Kelly never had both Okwara brothers together as teammates, but he was able to see them interact together throughout the years.

“They’ve always been very supportive,” Kelly said. “When Romeo comes around, Julian is obviously very excited to see him. But Romeo has never been that guy that is giving advice. He kind of stays back and he’s let Julian be who he is.

“I’ve always appreciated that: the way Romeo has handled Julian and letting Julian be who he is. It’s really helped him a lot.”

Versatile Claypool

The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t have a wide receiver on their roster that looks like Chase Claypool. None of the wide receivers are taller than 6-2 or heavier than 220 pounds.

That doesn’t mean the 6-4, 238-pound Claypool has to be pigeonholed into one specific role. Kelly believes he can be used in a number of different ways in the passing game. He’ll also provide blocking help.

“He can come down and block anybody: safeties, rovers, corners,” Kelly said. “Obviously he can mismatch on them. He has great versatility.”

What made Claypool attractive to Notre Dame as a recruit out of Abbotsford, British Columbia in Canada is likely what led the Steelers to selecting him in the second round.

“Everybody’s looking for traits, and the physical traits for him are his size and length and catching radius,” Kelly said. “He can go up and catch the football and create mismatches. (He has) elite traits physically, and then from an excellent standpoint he has an incredible drive and competitiveness in him that separates him amongst many.”

Pride projection

Former Irish cornerbacks Troy Pride Jr. and Julian Love were selected five picks apart in the fourth round of back-to-back drafts.

The New York Giants drafted Love with pick No. 108 last year. Pride came off the board at pick No. 113 this year to the Carolina Panthers.

Love had a more productive college career, but Pride has the speed (4.4 in the 40) that leads to favorable projections.

“A lot of the evaluations on Julian were done based upon his ability to get to the football and pass breakups,” Kelly said. “Whereas Troy Pride, a lot of his evaluation is based upon his speed and his athletic ability.

“In one respect you’re looking at a Julian Love and saying ‘Here’s a guy that makes a lot of plays. On the other side, you’re looking at Troy Pride and saying, ‘Here’s a guy that has an incredible athletic ability. Let’s get him in a position to make plays.’ That’s how they differ.

“Troy is a guy that is just starting to scratch his potential and where he could be as a player. I think that’s what a lot of the NFL people saw and that’s why you saw him taken where he was in the draft.”

Gilman comparison

In conversation with Baltimore Ravens head coach Jim Harbaugh, Kelly offered a specific player comparison for former Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman: former Cincinnati safety Haruki Nakamura.

Nakamura, who played for Kelly with the Bearcats, was selected by the Ravens in the sixth round of the 2008 draft and played four seasons in Baltimore. Gilman also became a sixth-round pick, but the Los Angeles Chargers took him instead of the Ravens.

“What we talked about was his smarts, intuitiveness, toughness and just makes your football team better in some fashion,” Kelly said. “You don’t know how he does it sometimes, but he just influences others.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly isn’t worried about tight end Cole Kmet’s speed translating to the NFL.
Wide receiver Chase Claypool finished his Notre Dame career with 150 catches for 2,159 yards and 19 touchdowns in 50 games.

“Having a lot of tight ends on your roster is one thing. Having Cole Kmet, that's another.”

Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly