SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Maybe Ohio State will still know what’s coming Friday. Notre Dame just hopes Durham Smythe can make picking out offensive tendencies a little tougher with the junior tight end fully fit for the Fiesta Bowl.
Smythe hasn’t played since shoulder and knee surgeries following the Virginia game, when sprains to his right AC joint and right MCL all but ended his season. The loss turned the tight end position into a novelty act with the four remaining bodies virtually anonymous all fall.
Nic Weishar, Alize Jones, Chase Hounshell and Tyler Luatua have combined for just 15 catches and zero touchdowns, although they’ve been good enough to block within Notre Dame’s best rushing offense since Lou Holtz’s final season.
Still, there’s a predictability to their games. Brian Kelly knows it. Defensive coordinators do too. Weishar and Jones are basically jumbo receivers. Luatua and Hounshell are essentially undersized offensive tackles.
Smythe can be both.
“We’ve had to all year do things with personnel to try and hide what sort of plays we’re coming in with, but with a guy like Durham you can run absolutely anything with him,” said quarterback DeShone Kizer. “It allows the defensive coordinator to be on his toes trying to figure out what we’re trying to do rather than bringing in different personnel for different plays that maybe defensive coordinators are able to pick up on different tendencies.”
Smythe caught the first touchdown of Kizer’s career, that over-the-head flip on a fake field goal at Virginia. By the end of that afternoon he was on a training table as Will Fuller snared that 39-yard game-winning score.
Smythe underwent surgery that next week and ruled himself out for the season. But after hobbling around campus for the next month, Smythe saw hope from the training staff by late October. By early November he decided to target a postseason return, potentially in the College Football Playoff.
Instead, Smythe will likely start against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, hoping to end Notre Dame’s sabbatical year as Tight End U.
“I think at this point now that it’s been 10 or 12 practices, I feel just like I did at the beginning of the year,” Smythe said. “I feel like myself and that’s pretty nice.”
While Smythe complimented the work of his backups, Kizer didn’t duck the reality the tight end position has been a dark spot within a bright season. That’s shown most in the red zone, where the Irish rank No. 90 nationally in touchdown percentage at 56 percent. Kizer averages an interception every eight attempts there and has completed less than half his passes.
A functional tight end might change those metrics. And now Notre Dame has one.
“If he were around all year I think it would bring a different dynamic to the tight end position,” Kizer said. “He’s been in this offense for a few years now and he understands what it takes to be a tight end here.”