Brian Kelly knew what he lost when Durham Smythe limped off the field at Virginia.
DeShone Kizer would find out during the next four months as Notre Dame’s offense seemed to do everything well but operate in the red zone, where the Irish lacked a physical presence in the pass game. That was supposed to be Smythe, who caught Kizer’s first career touchdown pass, a fake field goal in Charlottesville overshadowed a couple hours later.
It was the only touchdown scored by an Irish tight end all year.
A shoulder injury against Texas started Smythe’s injury decline. A week later he injured his MCL after getting rolled up on the game-winning drive. He’d return for the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State but could only play a bit part. Now fully healthy with another spring practice logged, Notre Dame expects Smythe to pick up where he left off last September.
If that happens, the Irish will be back in business at tight end.
“To have that guy that sits down over the ball that can be a check release player for you, as well as somebody who can get to the back side of the defense, I think he’s gonna be that guy for us that we really didn’t have at times,” Kelly said. “He has two injuries that we’ve gotta understand he’s coming back from. This spring has been gaining confidence. More and more as he’s played he’s gained confidence in his ability.”
Smythe is next in Irish Illustrated’s A-to-Z series.
Meet Notre Dame’s next great tight end. There’s little question Smythe can get there with a full off-season in the weight room and some good medical fortune. Remember that offensive coordinator Mike Sanford wanted Smythe at Stanford while he was on staff there, and the Cardinal knows tight ends almost as well as the Irish. If Smythe had been healthy last year he probably puts up 40+ catches and a half-dozen touchdowns. He’d be on the Mackey Award Watch List too. Instead, he’s virtually anonymous outside of South Bend, and even here he’s overlooked for sophomore Alizé Jones. Smythe doesn’t need to replicate the production of Tyler Eifert or Troy Niklas, but he seems good enough to be an improvement on Ben Koyack.
This is more an issue of training than talent for Smythe, who missed a season of development last fall and probably needed it in the weight room as much as the field. It might seem strange to list Smythe as undersized at nearly 250 pounds, but there’s a lot of space to fill out with this senior. If Smythe can’t retake the ground he lost last season in training, it will be difficult for him to be Notre Dame’s next great tight end. There’s little question Smythe will be a key part of the Irish offense, meaning the floor for this tight end is high despite limited production the past three seasons. What Notre Dame needs, though, is for Smythe to be a go-to target for Kizer or Malik Zaire, not just an outlet.
Three seasons. Four catches. Two surgeries. One touchdown. This career comparison would be easier without last year’s medical wash, which started going bad against Texas and crashed a week later at Virginia. Shoulder and knee surgeries followed. The most generous comparison would be John Carlson, who also took a red-shirt freshman year before spot duty as a sophomore and junior (eight starts, 13 catches one touchdown). A more ominous one might be Marcus Freeman, who Carlson kept on the bench as a senior. Freeman took a red-shirt, barely played as a sophomore and started six games as a junior, making five catches for 50 yards. But more talented players made him a career reserve from there.
Development vs. Recruiting Ranking
Was it groupthink or coincidence? Amazingly, Scout, ESPN and 247 all ranked Smythe a four-star prospect and the nation’s No. 6 tight end in his class. And it was a heck of a year for tight ends. The five guys ahead of Smythe on Scout? O.J. Howard, Adam Breneman, Marcus Baugh, Hunter Henry and Jake Butt. Rivals was the outlier, tagging Smythe a three-star prospect and No. 15 among tight ends. Due to injury, Smythe’s career has been more three star than four star, which can still change this fall.
Smythe At His Best
Yeah, that touchdown catch on the fake field goal at Virginia was great. But the best of Smythe actually came later in that game when he suffered a season-ending knee injury just before Kizer hit Will Fuller for the game-winner. Despite that MCL injury, Smythe was sharp enough in the final minute to limp off the field instead of going down (and triggering a clock runoff). Those seconds came in handy for Kizer and Fuller.
Quote To Note
“I think he gives you that guy that you can count on in the middle of the field that at times we lacked. He’s gonna be instrumental.” – Brian Kelly during spring practice