Notre Dame Turns To Next Steps At Tight End Minus Cole Kmet
Three years ago, tight ends recruits Brock Wright and Cole Kmet were the lone top 100 recruits, per Rivals, in Notre Dame’s 2017 recruiting haul. Wright was ranked No. 44 overall and the No. 1 tight end, while Kmet was No. 95 overall and No. 3 in his position group.
That quality depth will now be put to the test halfway through Thursday’s practice, the fifth and final one at the Culver Academies before returning to Notre Dame, when an awkward landing by Kmet after a superb reception resulted in what Blueandgold.com learned shortly afterwards was a broken collarbone.
Such injuries generally take at least six weeks to heal, which in a best-case situation could have Kmet ready for the Sept. 21 showdown at Georgia, ostensibly the overwhelming No. 3 team in college football, behind Clemson and Alabama, which have split the last four national titles.
Kmet’s injury occurred during a red zone drill in which he and senior safety Alohi Gilman battled for a jump ball in the end zone. The 5-10 ½ Gilman nearly broke up the pass versus the 6-5 ½ and 250-pound Kmet, but Kmet’s half-foot advantage to go with his high leap enabled him to snatch the football.
However, on the way down, Kmet landed hard on his right shoulder, and the impact of the fall was immediately evident as he remained on the turf for a spell and rose in pain while conspicuously in pain on the right side.
Every opening game starter at tight end for Notre Dame since 2004 went on to be drafted by the NFL later in his career. This includes second-round picks Anthony Fasano (2004), John Carlson (2006), Kyle Rudolph (2008) and Troy Niklas (2013), first-round choice Tyler Eifert (2011), fourth-round selection Durham Smythe (2015), and then in the seventh round Ben Koyack (2014) and Alize Mack (2018).
With Kmet sidelined, the junior Wright is expected to make his starting debut at Louisville in the Sept. 2 opener, provided he stays healthy. While the situation isn’t necessarily "chaotic," Wright said this spring that handling such unexpected situations is part of the Notre Dame strength and conditioning program under Matt Balis.
“He does a great job of putting us in positions where we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” said Wright of Balis this spring. “He uses the word ‘chaos’ a lot, and a lot of times in a game there’s going to be chaos. So by training, he’s preparing us to deal with that kind of thing.”
Primarily a blocker in his first two years, Wright played in the 260-pound range. He enters this season at 6-4 ½, 246 but is still “strong as an ox,” per offensive coordinator Chip Long.
“In the previous years I was a little bit more stiff, so I thought maybe if I could lose the weight and get a little bit more flexible I’d be able to move better and do more things on the field,” Wright said.
After Kmet’s injury, Wright emerged with a strong practice, including a couple of grabs in the end zone in red zone work, one while tight-roping the back end of the end zone on a crossing route, and the other while out-dueling top cornerback Troy Pride Jr. on a pass that had extra heat.
He grabbed his first career college touchdown pass at Wake Forest last year while lined up in his fullback/blocking role, and does not want to be defined as merely “the blocking tight end.” One doesn’t get ranked No. 1 nationally at your position group by being one-dimensional.
“In this offense, you have to be able to do both,” he said of developing into a well-rounded tight end. “It doesn’t really matter what the labels are. We just want to be able to go out there to do whatever we’re required to do on offense.”
Since 2013, only four other Irish players were rated higher by Rivals than Wright: linebacker Jaylon Smith (3) in 2013, offensive lineman Quenton Nelson (29) in 2014, defensive end/linebacker Daelin Hayes (31) in 2016, and current sophomore cornerback Houston Griffith (43).
Working behind Wright now is the sophomore tandem of 6-3 ¼ Tommy Tremble and four-star recruit and 6-6, 247-pound George Takacs, both of whom redshirted last season. At the end of spring, Long considered Tremble one of the top surprises on the roster.
“If there’s a guy on offense who’s progressed to now where you think he can really help us [in 2019], it probably would be him,” said Long of Tremble, who made one of the more spectacular catches in Thursday’s practice with a leaping one-handed grab. “He’s got great athleticism and great speed, and is a really physical player .”