There comes a point when repeated vague praises ring hollow. Until proven true, they are nothing but the echoes of potential. One can be forgiven for feeling that way with half of Notre Dame’s active tight ends this spring, but the applause of coaches and teammates alike pertains to both of the healthy tight ends, so at least some of it should be given due consideration.
With fifth-year Nic Weishar and rising sophomore Brock Wright both recovering from shoulder surgeries and early-enrolled freshman George Takacs out after a cartilage surgery, only rising senior Alizé Mack (pictured above) and rising sophomore Cole Kmet are currently full-go among the tight ends.
High expectations have followed Mack throughout his career, particularly since a 45-yard grab as a freshman helped set up the Irish for a come-from-behind victory at No. 21 Temple in October of 2015. Even though Mack missed his sophomore season due to academic issues, he landed on the John Mackey Award watch list heading into 2017, identifying him as among the nation’s most-talented tight ends.
Of course, Mack managed just 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown last season, not exactly the production anticipated from a Mackey candidate. He appeared in only 10 games, partly due to a concussion and partly due to further disciplinary missteps.
Such has not yet been a concern for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly this spring.
“He’s been more consistent,” Kelly said Saturday. “Obviously, what plagued him last year was inconsistency. Everything that he did was inconsistent.
“… I’m happy for him that he’s showing some consistency. When he does, the jury is still out there. He still has a ways to go.”
That is the repeated, albeit certainly tempered and possibly now accurate, recognition at tight end. Kelly’s regards for Kmet may have been as predictable, and they serve to put Mack on notice. Even when Durham Smythe was ahead of him on the depth chart, no other Irish tight end could match Mack’s athleticism or top-end impact. Kmet just might.
“Cole certainly creates a competitive situation there,” Kelly said. “It’s [Mack’s] job to motivate himself, but I would think that’s pretty motivating to watch [Kmet] and what he does.”
Even as a consensus four-star recruit and the No. 3 tight end in his class, per rivals.com, any previous hype about Kmet pales in comparison to the commentary after seeing him in first-team situations a full year into his collegiate career. Kelly ran through the gamut of situations in which Kmet has excelled this spring, citing soft hands, physical blocking and an aggressiveness when running after the catch.
Notre Dame lists Kmet at 6-foot-5 ½ and Mack at 6-foot-4 ¾. That difference is negligible, but it reinforces Kmet may offer the same luxury for quarterbacks that Mack does, an ability to go up and get the ball almost no matter where it is thrown, something also available in 6-foot-4 receivers rising junior Chase Claypool and rising senior Miles Boykin.
“You put it in their area, those guys are going to come down with it,” rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush said. “Last year we averaged 6-4, 6-5 outside, and obviously Miles and Chase are the same size, then those two guys inside.”
The matching of size and speed with strong hands has long been sought from Mack. He has yet to truly bring the reputation of “Tight End U” to fruition. Then again, he has not had Kmet around offering similar possibilities.
Kmet’s excellence elsewhere
In the spring, Kmet also contributes as an Irish relief pitcher. In 10 appearances and 22.2 innings to date, Kmet has struck out 19 with an ERA of 2.78 and a WHIP of 1.32, notching three saves. If he wanted, Kmet could spend even more time away from the football team as a result of the baseball duties.
Kelly said he gave Kmet the chance to miss Saturday morning’s practice after recording a save Friday evening. Instead, Kmet dismissed the notion outright.
“His response was, ‘I threw like 15 (pitches). I didn’t do anything for like two hours. Of course I’m practicing,’” Kelly said of Kmet’s incredulity. “That’s just the kind of guy he is. He’s just fun to watch.”
Could those abilities lead to a decision down the line a la former Irish receiver/pitcher Jeff Samardzija? It is a natural question to ask, if for no other reason than the University involved.
“As far as the baseball part of it? Yeah, maybe,” Notre Dame baseball manager Mik Aoki told ND Insider’s Eric Hansen. “… While the curveball could get a little sharper and the change-up could certainly get a little better and all those types of things, he’s got the most important thing. He’s got the mental toughness to go out there and compete.”