ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Frank Kmet waited patiently for a competitive fire to begin burning in his son.
Ability wouldn’t be a problem. Frank was an all-state prep football player in Illinois and led Hersey High School to a state championship in 1987 before playing defensive line at Purdue and in the NFL.
Genetics were always likely to give his son Cole the size and athleticism to follow in his father’s footsteps. But would he have the spark to compete no matter the circumstances? Frank wouldn’t know for sure until a youth level summer baseball tournament about a half-dozen years ago.
That’s when Cole Kmet found a spark to light his competitive fuse, adding that to his already advanced physical development.
“I just saw the fire in him,” Frank said. “I knew he had athletic ability but the fire I wanted to see and it came out at that tournament. It hasn’t stopped since. So, yeah, I think around 12 years old I knew that if he gets the size and all that stuff he would be a Division I football player.”
Sure enough, size and strength came naturally. Now 6-foot-6, 240-pounds, Cole will begin his junior season at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, Ill., later this month as a top football prospect.
Dozens of college coaches streamed through St. Viator — which produced former Miami running back Jarrett Payton, record-setting Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez and New York Giants offensive lineman Emmett Cleary — during the spring evaluation period.
“He was a big sophomore,” said St. Viator head coach Brandon New. “But he wasn’t nearly as big as he is now weight-wise and height-wise. So, he grew in all aspects. He’s a two-sport athlete and he grew a lot even in baseball season. He added weight, got bigger. Part of that is his work ethic and part of that is just natural.”
Cole now holds offers from Baylor, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Toledo. Scout.com rates him a four-star prospect at No. 170 overall in its latest rankings for the Class of 2017.
Cole also still plays baseball. He’s a left-handed pitcher and his fastball sits in the upper 80s. It’s football that reigns supreme, however, and will be the sport that takes him to college, something the tight end is still trying to wrap his brain around.
Frank told his son the offers would come. Same goes for Cole’s uncle, former NFL defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina. Cole called spring “weird” as those scholarships started to materialize.
“My dad and my uncle both played in the NFL and they always told me, ‘You’re big, you’re fast. It’s gonna happen,’” Cole said. “I didn’t really expect anything. They just kinda told me that. Once it started happening I realized it was true.”
Now Cole is grappling with that recruiting process.
Notre Dame and Ohio State lead after multiple visits. He’ll return to South Bend for the season opener against Texas and plans to visit the Buckeyes again in mid-October for their game against Penn State.
Cole doesn’t necessarily have plans for how the rest of it will play out. He could make a commitment at just about any time, whenever it feels right.
He doesn’t want any of it to get in the way of school or the season and isn’t the type to talk much about his scholarship offers or the privileges of being a top recruit.
“Cole's not a guy who’s out there self-promoting, which is great,” New said. “His family isn’t that either. The one thing Cole said to me was, ‘Coach, I hope this gives my teammates an opportunity to maybe get noticed.’ I think that’s the best thing that a kid could say. The first time that Cole got a Division I offer I sat the entire team down and I said, ‘Guys, I’m just gonna tell you, every major college in this country, their coaching staff is gonna watch St. Viator football.’
“They kinda looked at me like I was crazy. I was like, ‘You’re gonna be seen by them. Yeah, they’re watching one kid on our team but you could get noticed. It’s a great opportunity for you.’ That’s what he was happy about as well.”
Frank has advised his son on how to manage it all — from reporters to coaches and all the other demands on his time. Cole has taken that advice and applied it, in particular how to compartmentalize recruiting.
“When I get on the football field it’s just playing football,” Cole said. “I’m not really worried about that. Sure, when I’m outside football I start thinking about it. But when I’m on the field I’m just thinking about that, doing my job and helping my teammates and my responsibilities.”
Come the last Friday in August, those responsibilities will take on another form.
St. Viator will rely on Cole to make plays at tight end. New also plans to give him reps at defensive end for the first time, a position where he flashed that athleticism during practice.
That’s where the competitive nature Frank first glimpsed in a baseball tournament will come in handy.
“He has all the physical tools,” New said. “And I think sometimes the outside expectation from people can wear on kids. He’s only 16 years old. You look at him and you’re like, ‘How is this kid only 16?’ But what I told him is I expect him to go out and dominate. I said, ‘You have all the ability. You’re not getting these offers because you don’t have ability. That’s what I expect from you.’ I also said enjoy every moment that you can.”