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A new friend: Cole Kmet comes off the bus first

In Cole Kmet, the Bears believe they have their tight end of the future. He might be the tight end of their here and now, too.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Notre Dame at Georgia

Tight end has been a revolving door for the Bears for years. Ever since the unceremonious jettisoning of Greg Olsen to start last decade, Chicago has tried and failed to find a consistent long-term answer at the Y position. There was Martellus Bennett, for a time, before he had a falling out with the early Ryan Pace regime. Then Zach Miller entered the fray. His play was a refreshing uptick up until the point that unfortunate injury circumstance reared its ugly head. Soon after, Trey Burton and Adam Shaheen had their respective shots. They shined relative to expectations, of course, but only on occasion.

This brings the Bears to the hope of a new physical specimen at tight end. A 6-foot-5, 250-pound young man by the name of Cole Kmet. Already branded as a coveted Local Boy for his high school and collegiate roots, Kmet begins his professional career with higher expectations than most second-rounders. He’ll be counted on to fill a void the Bears have only been able to gloss over with Band-Aids, and fast. He’ll have to accomplish such a feat while carrying the weight of a hometown burden on his back.

No pressure, rookie. No pressure in the least.

Sometimes the best insight on a player’s prospects can only be gleaned from those who understood them before their come-up. To get a deeper frame of reference on what the future holds for Kmet’s upcoming journey with the Bears, I spoke with One Foot Down’s Site Manager, Joshua Vowles. We touched on Kmet’s amateur development, a profound legacy of tight ends at Notre Dame, and where, perhaps, the 21-year-old fits into the puzzle of the 2020 Bears.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Bowling Green at Notre Dame Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1. A lot has been made of Cole Kmet’s profile as the prototypical Y tight end. How did the Irish maximize this skill-set, and where might he need to improve upon (i.e. limitations) to succeed with the Bears at the next level?

Joshua Vowles: To be honest, I’m not sure that Notre Dame did maximize Kmet’s talent at tight end. Certainly he was a major part of the offense in 2019, and in Notre Dame’s two biggest games of the season (Georgia and Michigan), he was outstanding in the pass game with a combined stat line of 11 receptions for 133 yards and two touchdowns. His reliability was his greatest asset, and Notre Dame didn’t lean on him nearly as much as they could have. His run blocking wasn’t bad, but it was something that he did struggle with. It will need more work at the next level.

2. After being a highly-sought after recruit, Kmet was a slow starter for the Irish, as his production was minimal up until he exploded in his junior season. Now it’s come to the point where Brian Kelly (in what is partly and certainly a coach going to bat for his former player) has stated Kmet “will be in line with the NFL’s best.” What happened early on that made Kmet such a non-factor, and what helped him click into stardom?

JV: Freshmen tight ends typically don’t explode in their first season anywhere—let alone a place like Notre Dame that is seemingly stocked at the position every year. In 2017, Brandon Wimbush was the starting quarterback, and he was not the world’s best passer. As a sophomore, Kmet became a much bigger part of the offense, but Alize Mack was a senior starter then—and again—Wimbush was the starter at quarterback for the first quarter of the year. Kmet was finally able to “click” in 2019 because he had earned his way to the starting role as a junior. And, he finally had a quarterback that could get him the ball. Had Kmet not been injured with a broken collarbone in fall camp and missed the first two games, we would probably have seen an extra 150 yards and one or two touchdowns added to his final statistical line of 515 yards and six touchdowns.

3. The Bears have had well-documented issues with their tight ends. They’re looking for immediate contributions from a position that has, mostly, been a black hole of late. The problem that potentially arises with Kmet, as it does with many other rookie tight ends, is that a lot of them take time to acclimate to the NFL. Is there a scenario where you think Kmet can break this trend, or is he stuck in the loop? How do you envision the Bears using and optimizing him as a rookie in terms of scheme, situational football, and play time?

JV: Unfortunately for Bears fans in 2020, I think Kmet’s production won’t be anything to blow their minds. It will take a year at least for him to adjust to the next level, but I also have no doubts that he will develop into what Chicago is seeking at tight end. As it is usually the case: How’s Chicago’s quarterback situation, and how creative can the offense be to put Kmet in a position of success? That will determine everything.

4. Notre Dame has become a tight end university over the past decade. Tyler Eifert. Kyle Rudolph. John Carlson. Before the advent of recent years, there was Anthony Fasano, Mark Bavaro, and Dave Casper. Where does Kmet fit into this legacy, and how does he differentiate himself?

JV: Notre Dame is, in fact, “Tight End U”. The names you listed (as well as a handful of others) are the reasons why. Unlike most of them, Kmet’s legacy wasn’t sealed in South Bend. Kmet left a senior year with a fifth-year senior quarterback on the table. It’s a year that would have likely saw him win a Mackey Award and be drafted in the first round (Notre Dame could make another big run at the playoffs in 2020).

I think of it like this. Kyle Rudolph left after his junior season and he never played on a “good team” from 2008-2010. Rudolph, however, started all 13 games his freshman year and was able to earn the love and respect of Irish fans early in his career. Tyler Eifert stayed for his senior year, and the Irish went 12-0 in the regular season and were ranked No. 1 before the night that shall not be discussed. In many ways on the field, as well as existentially, Kmet is a combination of Rudolph and Eifert. But I think his overall legacy at Notre Dame will rely on what he does in the NFL. There will be a certain amount of magnification on how he develops as well because of the amount of Bears fans that also happen to be Notre Dame fans.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Notre Dame at Georgia

5. Now that Kmet’s amateur career has come to a close, what is one unique moment, story, or anecdote about him that sticks out to you from his time in South Bend?

JV: Notre Dame rostered another Chicago-area tight end in 2017 in Nic Weishar. Weishar had a nickname around the team of “dad” and even “dad-bo.” I distinctly remember talking to Weishar about this after Notre Dame’s season opening win against Temple in 2017. He was a great teammate and a decent guy, but his physical stature wasn’t anything to gawk at (although he did rock a spectacular mustache in fall camp in 2017).

Fast forward to 2019, and I was standing next to Kmet by the tunnel after Notre Dame’s big win over USC. I remember being blown away by his physical presence. He was a massive human. You get used to all of the giant linemen while covering football games, especially at Notre Dame, but Kmet stood out as an “off-the-bus-first” kind of a guy. He’s low-key, so I don’t have any wild stories that I witnessed or even heard secondhand. All I have is the initial “wow” factor he gave me back in October.

Follow Joshua on Twitter @TheSubwayDomer and read his work at One Foot Down.

Follow Robert on Twitter @RobertZeglinski. You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.