One More Weapon

Notre Dame’s quartet of inexperienced tight ends struggled throughout 2015. The return of starter Durham Smythe affords the position a fresh start at the outset of a new year.

The most important play by a Notre Dame tight end this season arguably occurred between plays, not between the whistles.

And though Durham Smythe’s heady, limping sprint from the Lane Stadium turf to the Irish sidelines won’t appear on the stat sheet it resulted in something much more relevant to the team’s current Fiesta Bowl status months later:

It won a football game.

“That was a wild 20 seconds,” said Smythe of a knee injury he suffered with less than 35 seconds remaining, his Irish trailing – sans a timeout – 27-26 to Virginia. “I was like, ‘Man, my leg is messed up.’ Then I thought, ‘If I stay on the ground, is there going to be a (10-second) run-off or something? Well I gotta get off.’

A run-off would have occurred, and had Smythe stayed down as do most injured players, not only would Notre Dame’s allotted time to get into field goal range (they were at the Virginia 39-yard line) been trimmed from about 27 seconds to 17, but the Cavaliers defense would have been afforded time to set due to a stoppage in play.

Instead, Smythe made it off the field, backup quarterback DeShone Kizer saw Will Fuller sprinting down the left sideline and, well, you know the rest. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c0NmV03xf9Q

“I got off the field and jumped on a random table, it wasn’t even a trainer’s table. (Trainer) Rob (Hunt) came over and was like, ‘Are you okay?’ Then the crowd went wild. Rob looked at me and said, ‘Well we just scored a touchdown, so I guess you’re fine.’”

In spirit yes, but Smythe’s body was far from it.

NO GROUPON NECESSARY

While legions of Irish fans celebrated the team’s remarkable escape from Charlottesville, Smythe settled in for surgery. Two of them.

“I had them together,” said Smythe who noted he expected knee surgery but was surprised his shoulder was in need of repair as well. “I went in the day after the game and got an MRI (knee) and X-Ray (Shoulder) and met with Dr. Lizler and Dr. Ratigan the next day. They had to operate on both so decided the might as well do it at the same time.

“3-hour surgery, 2-for-1 (deal) so to speak.”

Smythe injured his shoulder during the Virginia game but braced it and played through the pain. Smythe’s relevance to the contest is notable for a reason in addition to his unique football sense and resulting sideline sprint: he scored a touchdown – the only touchdown by an Irish tight end this season.

“Throughout my career here I’ve really tried to be a guy that can provide some consistency, whether it’s through the run game, the passing game…anywhere,” said Smythe. “When you’re in the red zone, you’re trying to keep the defense guessing. Running with power (vs.) passing over the top and you want to rely on someone that can bring some consistency and I think I can (provide it).”

NOT UP TO PAR

Smythe’s quartet of replacements at the position had their moments but collectively Irish tight ends combined for the least productive season at the position since 2002 – not coincidentally the *last football season in which no Notre Dame tight end failed to later play at least one NFL season.

2002: 24 receptions, 263 yards, 0 touchdowns among four participating tight ends.

2015: 17 receptions, 204 yards, 1 touchdown (Smythe, on a fake field goal at Virginia).

(*The previous such occurrence was 1979 when top-tier starter Dean Matszak, a likely first-round pick, later lost his chance at a professional career due to injuries.)

Film reviews weren’t exactly kind to the neophyte Irish blockers, either. It’s a skillset that suffered in Smythe’s absence as the junior target likewise ranked as the squad’s best in that regard entering the regular season. Back in the fold and purportedly full-go, Smythe’s presence as a participant in the forthcoming Fiesta Bowl is a surprise to most fans but not unexpected within the program’s walls.

“Rob (Hunt) came up to me a couple months ago and said, ‘You’ve been progressing pretty well and there’s a chance you can get back out there, is that something you’d be interested in?’”

With his redshirt season already used (freshman/2013) there was no downside for Smythe to give it a shot. December practices – always relevant for Smythe – took on new meaning.

“My redshirt year I had no affiliation with the offense until bowl practices, so that was a great experience,” he offered. “Last year it was an extended role because of (resting starter Ben Koyack). And this year it’s about getting back.

“I think bowl practices are really important altogether, but especially being out 10-12 weeks. “It took a couple of practices to knock the rust off mentally as well as physically.

“I feel like I’ve been out for three years. My excitement level is up there like it would be beginning of the year when you’re looking to get out there for the first time.”

A new beginning – exactly what the position needs and one its best player is poised to provide.


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