SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When it came time for tight end Cole Kmet’s season debut, Notre Dame skipped the hors d’oeuvres.
“We put him right in the frying pan,” coach Brian Kelly said.
On their first play from scrimmage against at No. 3 Georgia before a howling crowd at sold-out Sanford Stadium, quarterback Ian Book connected for an eight-yard gain with Kmet, who had missed No. 10 Notre Dame’s first two victories while recuperating from surgery for a broken right collarbone suffered Aug. 8 in practice.
“I knew the first play on Thursday,” Kmet said of preparations last week. “Coach (Chip) Long (Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator) said ‘We’re going to get you going.’ With (Long), if you make a play, he’s going to come back to you.”
Before the drive was over, Long would call Kmet’s number twice more for receptions of 10 and 15 yards. And before the night was over, the 6-foot-5 ½, 250-pound junior from suburban Chicago would tie a single-game reception record for Fighting Irish tight ends with nine, good for 108 yards and Notre Dame’s first touchdown in an eventual 23-17 loss.
“It felt good to come out and play well against an opponent like that,” Kmet said. “You always appreciate the game more when you get hurt.”
Notre Dame has been waiting for Kmet to take his place on the mantle established by previous tight ends at the school, from 1949 Heisman Trophy winner Leon Hart to All-Americans Dave Casper, Mark Bavaro, John Carlson and Tyler Eifert, the all-time leader in tight end receptions for a season (63) and career (140).
“There is no substitute for game experience,” Kelly said. “You count the Georgia game, and the experience (Kmet) got from there, not only in playing in the game but the confidence that he gained from that. He’ll come in with a lot of confidence this week.”
Which Kmet and the Irish (2-1) will need when No. 18 Virginia (4-0) visits Saturday.
“(Kmet) brings that physicality and big-body type tight end where he’s imposing, but he still has the ability to catch and run,” said Kelly, whose tight ends at Notre Dame have included Kyle Rudolph of the Minnesota Vikings and Eifert of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Injuries — the broken collarbone and a high ankle sprain that cost Kmet two games and limited his production last season — have been frustrating.
“You’ve just got to keep your head up and keep going,” said Kmet, who entered last week’s game with zero touchdowns and just 17 receptions in his career, 15 of them coming last season for 162 yards.
Kmet, who had a plate and screws surgically inserted to repair the collarbone, came back in 44 days to play.
“I’m sure our doctors were cringing the first time we threw the ball to him,” Kelly said. “We didn’t take it easy on him.”
Long, who oversees the tight ends and played the position himself at North Alabama, targeted Kmet 11 times during the game. Kmet’s one-yard TD reception gave Notre Dame a 7-0 lead in the second quarter and a 28-yard reception helped the Irish to a 27-yard field goal and 10-7 halftime lead. Finally, a 31-yard completion down the seam to the Georgia 18 set up Notre Dame’s final touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
“When you have a tight end that can push the middle of the field, it creates problems,” Kelly said. “(Kmet) creates matchup problems that can spread the field for other receivers to get some favorable matchups. Yeah, he’s a big piece to what we’re doing.”
Kmet entered Notre Dame not only as a heralded tight end from St. Viator High School but also a standout left-handed pitcher who led the school to a state championship his senior year. Kmet made eight saves for the Irish baseball team as a freshman, but a left elbow injury ended his sophomore season after just eight games and two saves but with 27 strikeouts in 18.2 innings. He intends to pitch next season and could be throwing to brother Casey, an Irish freshman catcher and infielder.
For now though, baseball can wait.