A 13-game contributor as a rookie in 2014, Durham Smythe’s prospects for playing time improved greatly over the off-season after the graduation of three-year regular Ben Koyack, the team’s runaway leader in terms of overall playing time last fall.
As a redshirt-sophomore, Smythe enters his third season in South Bend as the clear-cut leader for the starting tight end role after a spring session in which he established himself as the team’s best pass-catching tight end and likely its top inline blocker as well.
Irish Illustrated continues its ND A-to-Z series with the former four-star prospect from Belton, Texas.
Smythe excels at the essential aspects of the tight end role in Brian Kelly’s offense, evolving into a consistent blocker for the Irish rushing attack while providing a reliable pair of hands and a knack for moving the chains as an under-the-radar player in the passing game.
Smythe first impressed Kelly with his ball skills as a true freshman in 2013 bowl game preparations. Nearly two calendar years later, those practice field moments must carry over to game days as rookie Irish quarterback Malik Zaire will need to rely on his classmate for chain-moving completions while opposing defenses focus on the likes of Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, and Amir Carlisle stressing the secondary downfield.
At nearly six-foot-five, 245 pounds, an effective Smythe would aid the Irish rushing attack for 13 Saturdays and finish the season with approximately 20 catches, 10-12 of which result in Irish first downs with perhaps a pair of scores. If most of those 20 receptions and both scores occur in competitive contests – at times when the Irish need clutch contributions most – Smythe’s impact will be better illustrated on the left side of the W-L ledger than on the final stat sheet.
Smythe falls short as an inline blocker, necessitating a platoon with physical sophomore Tyler Luatua, a development that would greatly tip Notre Dame’s hand, as Luatua is not yet a receiving threat.
Notre Dame has two tight end prospects that could fill Smythe’s role as a pass-catcher in redshirt-freshman Nic Weishar and five-star freshman Aliz’e Jones, but neither would likely be able to carry the load as an in-line blocker at this early stage of his career.
Only Smythe presents, potentially, as the complete package for 2015 and the tight end is a necessity in Kelly’s version of the spread offense, especially with an increased emphasis on the zone-read element of the rushing attack.
Former Irish tight end Mike Ragone had one reception for seven yards after his first two seasons in the program, identical to Smythe. Ragone finished Year 3 with six more grabs and 60 yards, playing a backup role to sophomore Kyle Rudolph, but the statistical mirror of their careers to date doesn’t reflect Smythe’s current situation.
Alex Welch had one grab for eight yards entering his third season and he was poised for a crucial backup role to Tyler Eifert in 2012 before an August camp ACL injury ended his junior season.
A litany of junior/redshirt-sophomore tight ends have waited their turn for two seasons and subsequently shined as third-year players in South Bend and that’s the goal for Smythe this fall.
Though a touch taller than Smythe, John Carlson seems an apt body-type/skillset comparison. Carlson caught six passes as a backup tight end during his sophomore season in 2004 and seven more with a score as a junior, but Carlson was forced to wait until his senior year for a starting assignment, breaking out with classmate Brady Quinn under center to the tune of 47 receptions, 634 yards and four scores.
A more realistic statistical target for Smythe in 2015 would be in the form of mid-90s standout Pete Chryplewicz: 17 receptions for 204 yards and a score, as a true junior, first-year starter in 1995.
Scout.com ranked Smythe as a four-star prospect and the No. 6 overall tight end in the 2013 class, ahead of fellow four-star classmate Mike Heuerman, listed at No. 10.
His limited playing time from scrimmage in Year 2 puts him behind a reasonably expected development curve because, to be blunt, Brian Kelly felt he could not take starter Ben Koyack off the field last season, which didn’t speak well for Smythe at the time, as Koyack was solid, not spectacular.
It’s a category to be revisited at the conclusion of 2015, as Smythe must perform between the lines as a junior/redshirt-sophomore competitor – his first true opportunity to shine.
The junior’s best career outing likely waits as Smythe’s only reception to date was a seven-yard grab at Arizona State last November. Faced with a 3rd and 3 from the Sun Devils 37-yard line, Irish quarterback Everett Golson found Smythe on the left sidelines for a 7-yard gain and Irish first down.
Chain-moving receptions on third down must be the order of the day for Smythe in 2015.
“I feel like he can be an in-line blocker, he can be a split out guy. He can catch the ball. He can be a receiving threat downfield. He’s just an all-around guy and I’ve seen some toughness out of him this spring, which I was pleased with.” – Tight ends coach Scott Booker reviewing Smythe midway through spring ball.