Cole Kmet’s decision to head to the NFL makes sense, given he may be the top tight end in the draft, but for at least a few more weeks, if not months, it will leave a taste of “What if?” for Notre Dame.
That unavoidably-frustrating thought will linger as long as the Irish wonder who will fill in down the seam for Kmet. Then again, that question might not last much longer than the beginning of the summer …
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Kmet’s preseason broken collarbone threw his potential breakout season into doubt, but a quick recovery had him in action against Georgia, much to Irish relief. Notre Dame turned to him on three of its first four plays in Athens, the junior tight end finishing the loss with nine catches for 108 yards and a touchdown.
“We feel like he’s a difference-maker as a player,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said just outside the hedges. “He kind of set the tone in the game with a physical run early on and then he got everybody feeling like this is the way we can play this game. He opens up a lot of things for us.”
Kmet’s immediate impact was welcomed, but sophomore Tommy Tremble (pictured at top) had already waylaid some Irish nerves with his debut at Louisville in the season opener. His first career catch was a 26-yard touchdown, a distinct first impression if there ever was one. By the end of Labor Day, he had added two more snags for 23 additional yards.
“He’s an outstanding athlete,” Kelly said back in the beginning of September. “We knew that when we recruited him. He had crazy numbers in all his testing when we recruited him. We knew it was just a matter of maturation, mostly off the field, as he transitioned to college and balancing both football and academics. As he’s done that and become more comfortable with balancing both, he started to emerge as a football player.”
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Tremble’s athleticism downfield diminished current junior Brock Wright’s expected role as the No. 2 tight end. That will presumably continue, but with Kmet in the NFL, Wright’s time to provide more than blocking in jumbo packages may have arrived. After a recruitment with just as much hype as Kmet’s, Wright has managed only four catches for 57 yards with one score in three seasons.
His 6-foot-4 ½, 246-pound frame simply does not have the speed for Wright to be a fluid threat down the seam, the type Tremble displayed in September and now has Kmet hoping for a first-round honor. Wright has made no other misstep than that.
A similar struggle may face current sophomore George Takacs (6-foot-6, 247 pounds), though he flashed strong hands with his touchdown grab at Duke, a pass that may have been forced by senior quarterback Ian Book to get Takacs on the scoreboard in a blowout, but one that Takacs converted, nonetheless.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
While Tremble may be the already-seen successor to Kmet to carry forward the “Tight End University” reputation and Wright is the former recruiting star who could theoretically fit that mold, incoming freshman Michael Mayer is arguably most likely the next among Irish tight ends. Mayer and fellow recent signee Kevin Bauman will arrive this summer, and each should have a genuine chance at complementing Tremble as he did Kmet, at the absolute least.
In the meantime, this spring will be Wright’s best (read: last) chance to become a genuine part of the offense. If he cannot establish himself ahead of Tremble by the Blue-Gold Game, it may be hard to envision him even matching his meager career stats in 2020.
Michael Mayer shows what he's been doing here all week with a 37-yard touchdown from Clemson signee DJ Uiagalelei. pic.twitter.com/oJ8OVJTxUr
— Carter Karels (@CarterKarels) January 4, 2020