LAKE FOREST – Most of us came back from our freshman/rookie years in secondary and higher education more comfortable, more knowledgeable, more confident and far better prepared to be successful with a year under our belts.
Much of the Bears’ hopes for dramatic improvements on offense this season rest with similar growth for sophomore tight end Cole Kmet.
Talk to him today as opposed to a year ago, and there are two things you notice right away.
First, you can do it in person.
Second, last year’s somewhat shy and humble second-round pick is today’s relaxed, well-spoken vet who appears to be having a ton of fun and now expects great things.
Kmet was asked about the difference a year makes Thursday.
“Yeah, it was weird [last year],” Kmet said. “First of all, you didn’t have an OTA period, and I got a lot out of the OTAs this past summer. So I think just the confidence level coming in right now and knowing where I stand and what I could do on the field and what I’m capable of is a big deal.
“Not everyone’s wearing masks. You can be close together. You can talk over things. So it’s been good and refreshing to have that this year. That’s important to me, to get to know my teammates. That’s how I build trust with people on the field.
“I think the OTA period was awesome. We were able to go out and do some things, finally go to dinner with guys, things like that have been great, make you more thankful for those kinds of things.”
Coach Matt Nagy is grateful for those OTAs, too.
“Cole and I have gotten together, and in the passing game we’ve talked through a lot of [video] clips to be able to run certain routes, and I wasn’t able to do that last year in training camp with him,” Nagy said. “Now in OTAs, he’d come up to my office and we’ll watch some routes and we’ll put it into fruition in OTAs.
“Now he gets to do it in training camp, so I think you’ll see him keep growing, and our relationship is building in the trust of how we work with each other.”
Another thing that couldn’t have happened last year was “Tight End University” in Nashville, Tennessee, a week of workouts among some of the NFL’s top players at the position organized after veteran minicamp by George Kittle, Travis Kelce and Greg Olsen.
Kmet and his mentor, Jimmy Graham, were two of the 40-plus tight ends attending, and Kmet gushed about that experience.
“One hundred percent, everyone there was awesome.,” Kmet said. “Being able to feed off one another was great. I got a lot out of it and definitely felt like I belonged there, for sure. A lot of us kinda have the same type of background, same type of personality. Whether it’s a play style or things like that, a lot of common things between one another. That was cool to see.”
Kmet doesn’t regret his first year, but he does acknowledge it was difficult at times.
“Looking back on it, it’s a tough year, really tough,” he said. “You go all day here ,and you can’t go see anybody. It’s not that I was afraid to get sick, it’s just I don’t want to test positive and miss a game. And that was every day, every day from July 27 last year to Jan. 11 with your testing and going home and not really seeing anybody. So it was tough.”
There’s no looking back for Kmet now, however, and he thinks general manager Ryan Pace and Nagy are committed to making him a focal point of the offense.
“Yeah, I mean they didn’t necessarily come out and say that to me last year, but I think that’s something that I’ve built in OTAs and continue to build during camp,” Kmet said. “This is a trust game. So, you’ve got to build trust with the coaches and the other players.”
Bears fans spend so much time commiserating over the decades-long drought at quarterback that they sometimes forget you have to go back to Mike Ditka to find a game-changing tight end in navy and orange.
He’ll have to prove it on the field, but right now Kmet sounds like a guy committed to embracing the challenge.
• Hub Arkush is a Shaw Media correspondent.