Driven Kmet Leaves MarkBy Todd Burlage
When looking for a character check on a young man’s legacy that stands strong almost three years after his high school graduation, a quick call to the folks at St. Viator near Chicago provides everything necessary regarding their proud alumnus turned multi-sport Notre Dame athlete Cole Kmet.
Not even the high school’s athletic secretary could keep from weighing in on the inquiry, saying, “We wish we had 20 more Coles moving through here.”
Mike Manno, Kmet’s high school baseball coach, called his former student “a once in a lifetime young man.”
Dick Corbett Head Football Coach Brian Kelly agreed, saying that his junior tight end is a “very unique and mature young man. … You don’t find many like him.”
So, what exactly is it about this engaging student-athlete that so readily impresses everyone around him?
“His drive for excellence, his drive to make people better,” Manno explained. “I can tell you that he’s made me a better baseball coach and a better person just being around him.”
And Kmet is equally thankful and complimentary to the coaches, clergy and teachers back at St. Viator who helped steer him to Notre Dame.
“Going to school there, it taught me how to do the right things off the field,” he said. “Even though being a good athlete has brought me a lot of success, it’s more important what you do off the field and how you support your community.”
Happy and healthy now, Kmet’s football career at Notre Dame hasn’t always stayed on script.
During the past 14 months, Kmet has rehabbed a high-ankle sprain that cost him two football games in 2018, a wear-and-tear tendon injury in his left elbow that cut short his 2019 baseball season and, most recently, a broken collarbone and subsequent surgery that kept him out of the first two games of this football season.
In kind of a freak injury August 8 — only five practices into this latest training camp — something didn’t feel right after Kmet got tangled up with Irish senior safety Alohi Gillman during a red-zone passing drill at Culver Academies.
“I thought maybe it was dislocated or something,” Kmet recalled of his initial reaction. “So I tried to pop it and I was like, ‘No, that’s not right.’”
Typical recovery time for a broken collarbone is six to eight weeks.
“I was bummed out,” said Kmet, who had a metal plate surgically implanted to keep everything in place. “But you have to look at it in perspective.”
Fewer than five weeks after the injury, Kmet was back at practice and then was at full health and ready to roll in Game 3 against Georgia when he made nine receptions for 108 yards with a touchdown grab, exactly six weeks after his injury.
“I only missed a couple of games,” Kmet said. “This could’ve happened later in camp. I was fortunate I was able to come back for the rest of the season.”
Kmet said that he physically felt fine upon his return. Shaking off some preparation rust was his greatest challenge.
“They told me with the plate I was good, and it was going to hold up, so I just went for it,” Kmet explained. “I had no tentativeness at all.”
Despite missing two games, Kmet has proven to be not only a quick healer but also a steady producer, already chasing down the team lead this season in both receptions and touchdown catches.
“I feel like I am only going to get more comfortable on the field and only get better each week,” Kmet said of his progress. “You just kind of feel the game more and more after being out.”
Two Sports, Zero Problems
Kmet is the latest in a growing list of Irish athletes who have thrived under the pressure of balancing the demands of two sports with the academic challenges at Notre Dame, especially in the spring when the baseball season and spring football overlap.
“You have so many different balls in the air with the two-sport aspect,” shared Evan Sharpley, a former Irish quarterback and baseball infielder in the mid 2000s. “Between practice, workouts, strength training and then you add everything on the academic side, the greatest challenge is the time management.”
Speaking of time management, a typical day in the life for Kmet during his busy spring months begins at about 5:30 a.m. for football workouts. Then he’s off to class and squeezing in a quick bite to eat before heading to the baseball facility.
“The spring is tough,” Kmet admitted, recalling that finding time to eat in order to keep his weight up was another daily challenge. “I put it on myself to make sure that I was in control of the situation, so it’s definitely a learning process but it is something you get accustomed to.”
Kmet accelerated his acclimation as a freshman by reaching out to Jeff Samardzija, a standout Notre Dame baseball pitcher and a two-time All-American wide receiver in 2005-06. Samardzija recently completed his 12th season as a starting MLB starting pitcher.
“(Samardzija) told me it will seem chaotic at first but once you get into the routine of things, it will just kind of flow, and that turned out to be really true,” said Kmet, who not only excels in his two sports but also carries a 3.5 GPA with a double major in political science and economics. “Once I got into the routine, it just kind of clicked for me.”
And Kmet vows that he’ll be back in the spring of 2020, ready to resurrect his three-pronged juggling act. “It’s something I love to do and really want to do,” he said.
Part of Cole’s enticement to play another season of college baseball is that his younger brother, Casey Kmet, is joining the Irish as a promising freshman catcher-third baseman, so an all-Kmet pitcher-catcher battery is very possible.
Cole Kmet’s expected return next spring to his secondary sport is also good news for Notre Dame football because the strong lure of ditching baseball to leave school at the end of this fall semester and his junior football season in order to prep for the 2020 NFL Draft can’t be underestimated.
The Notre Dame players call Kmet — affectionately and appropriately — an athletic “freak” and it’s easy to see why. Kmet is 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds. He wears a size 16.5 cleat, yet he still leaps 40-inches vertically, runs a 4.65 40-yard dash and he has hands big enough to make a football disappear.
“Cole Kmet would definitely be a top-50 player in the 2020 draft,” said NFL scouting analyst Scott Wright, president and founder of NFLDraftCountdown.com. “He very well might be Notre Dame’s best pro prospect.”
And given Kmet’s lineage, it’s easy to understand why a long-term professional football future awaits.
Cole’s father, Frank Kmet, was a defensive tackle at Purdue from 1988-91 and a fourth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills.
And the brother of Cole’s mother, Kandace, uncle Jeff Zgonina, spent 17 seasons as an NFL defensive lineman through the 1990s and 2000s.
Expect Cole to become the next branch on the Kmet NFL family tree.
“All the hard work I have been putting in, it’s definitely nice to know that it is paying off,” Kmet said. “It’s exciting to know that I have a lot of progression left to come and a lot of opportunities ahead.”
And plenty of future promise in all things, both during and after football.