The program’s presumptive starting tight end is a Texas native and former Texas commitment, which makes this season’s opener against the Longhorns more than the next game on the schedule. The countdown clock to Sept. 5 inside the Gug doubles as the lock screen on Smythe’s phone.
“I think it’s been helpful for me in the off-season and in spring ball because there’s that extra fire,” Smythe said. “These are guys I know, people I know. There’s something extra there.”
Smythe, who’s consistently repped with the starting lineup all spring with Ben Koyack gone, has more familiarity with the reworked Irish staff than most.
After Smythe de-committed from Texas barely a month before National Signing Day, he settled on a final two of Notre Dame and Stanford. His primary recruiter with the Cardinal was Mike Sanford, who made multiple visits to Belton, Texas.
But if Smythe had committed to the Cardinal he would have played just one season with Sanford, who was off to Boise State a year later as offensive coordinator. There Sanford worked for head coach Bryan Harsin, who was Smythe’s primary recruiter at Texas and whose departure from Austin helped trigger his de-commitment in the first place.
“It’s weird, (Sanford) was one of my favorite coaches in that time period,” Smythe said. “In recruiting, coaching, when I talk to him outside football, he has a lot of energy and is someone who is just really excited about football and life. I feel he connects to a lot of players too because as a younger guy he can do that, having that energy, you feel excited to talk to him.”
Smythe said he began spring ball at 250 pounds, up 10 from last season. Now, instead of being overrun at the line of scrimmage, the rising junior believes the extra weight lets him generate some movement in the run game, an area where he struggled last season.
“There were a lot of times last year where I was in-line and I had to block Isaac (Rochell), guys that are a lot bigger, guys that were 30, 40, 50 pounds more than me,” Smythe said. “Now I feel like it’s almost like the playing field is a little bit more even. If my technique is better than his technique, I’m moving him off the ball.”
Notre Dame needs that production considering Smythe is the program’s only prototypical build at the position. Tyler Luatua is more blocking tight end than receiver, even down 10 pounds from last season. Nic Weishar is coming off a red-shirt. Chase Hounshell is a converted defensive tackle. Mike Heuerman is nowhere to be found on the depth chart. Incoming freshman Alize Jones has yet to enroll.
Smythe may never have a better opportunity to lock down the starting tight end job than right now. While he doesn’t approach practice differently with Koyack gone, there’s an enhanced pressure from the coaching staff.
If Brian Kelly expected Smythe to keep up last season, now he demands it.
“They’re yelling at you, but they need you to be the guy,” Smythe said. “It’s different, but either way you’re expected to know the system.
“(Last year) was tough on me because there were a lot of times where Ben would do something better than me or know the system better than me. I’d try to go out there and replicate and it wouldn’t be as good so I would get barked at a lot. That was good for me from the standpoint you’re not only trying to replicate it, but you have to do it exactly that way.
“Now there’s no buffer zone, one of us is going to have to be out there.”