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Where Notre Dame was and is: Tight ends

Stanford v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 29: Nic Weishar #82 and Cole Kmet #84 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a first down during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on September 29, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

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Here is where some abstract thought about “Tight End U” would fit. Perhaps a musing about Alizé Mack’s draft hopes, or lack thereof, jeopardizing Notre Dame’s streak of drafted starting tight ends, a run in which every season-opening starting Irish tight end has been drafted dating back to the Tyrone Willingham days.

But that is all in the past. Then again, there is a way to tie the past to the present, even including the NFL draft thoughts — Could this crop of Notre Dame tight ends include the 12th (or 13th, if Mack does indeed hear his name called) one drafted this century? Quite possibly, although not necessarily until 2021.

That year’s delay speaks to the relative inexperience of these current tight ends, no matter how talented some may be. One strong year at the position is rarely enough to justify leaving eligibility unused. Junior Cole Kmet entered the spring splitting his time between the football field and the baseball diamond and with a total of 17 catches for 176 yards in his career. His next touchdown will be his first.

Junior Brock Wright at least has a score, one of his two career receptions, while sophomores Tommy Tremble and George Takacs have yet to appear in games at the collegiate level.

But just because these four were and are inexperienced, that does not mean expectations were not placed upon them as soon as Mack’s career concluded, on Kmet in particular.

“[Kmet’s ceiling] is whatever he wants it to be,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said at the beginning of spring practices. “Obviously, we always have to work on his fundamentals and stuff, but with his speed and size, he should absolutely dominate in the middle of the field.”

The focus here, in most articles throughout the offseason and of the Irish offense Saturday is, will be and was on Kmet. He finished the Blue-Gold Game with three catches for 21 yards, a seemingly minor contribution. Two things stood out about them, though.

First, that Kmet played at all and was subsequently targeted. An ankle injury limited him in the later weeks of the spring, after elbow soreness cut short his baseball season. Kmet’s appearance in the spring finale shows neither injury was much to worry about, not that either genuinely was.

Second, the three catches come in the span of five plays, with another target among them, just before halftime. When senior quarterback Ian Book looked to Kmet twice in a row to start the drive, it immediately felt like Long realized Kmet had not yet been targeted and was scheduled to sit down after halftime. Of the four targets, the incompletion stood out most. A seam route, Book’s pass had just a bit too much on it, bouncing off Kmet’s highest reach.

Even incomplete, the play showed what Kmet could represent. It was a play reminiscent of the Tyler Eifert days. Eifert often lined up along the sideline, but when on the inside, the athletic mismatch against whatever linebacker or safety had to face him allowed for quick shots down the middle of the field. Kmet could present that possibility on a regular basis.

His injury, in its own way, furthered the tight ends as a whole. Wright became more of a leader for the group.

“Brock has had a great spring, been steady all 14 practices,” Long said a week ago. “Really proud of him. Just see a confidence in him after three years, getting his body right, being in the offense and knowing how to execute at a high level. He’s done a great job with leadership, as well. Brock has always been a great worker, but you can just see him having so much success out there, seeing it build in him and the confidence he takes on the practice field every day.”

Wright’s snaps to date have nearly all come as a blocker first and foremost. This spring he showed capacity for much more, a physical complement to Kmet’s athleticism.

Kmet’s ankle injury also pushed Tremble into a pseudo-starting role for the last few spring practices, in which he showed similar physical attributes, if yet raw and not as fluent in the playbook.

“Every year some guys step up,” Book said in Saturday’s post-game. “Tommy is one of those.”

With four tight ends on the roster for at least 2019 and most likely 2020, there was no need to chase any more in the incoming freshman class. Instead, the Irish already have two consensus four-star tight ends committed for the class of 2020, meaning they could overlap with Kmet and Wright by a season and, presuming they preserve eligibility that season, will be two years behind Tremble and Takacs.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Quarterbacks and special teams
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Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers