Durham Smythe: Notre Dame Football Now or Never ’16

Durham Smythe - Notre Dame TE
Can Durham Smythe continue the lineage of Tight End U or will rising star Alize Jones pass him by? Photo: Matt Cashore // USA TODAY Sports

UHND’s annual “Now or Never” series has weighed the future of Malik Zaire and laid out a case for wide receivers Torii Hunter and Corey Holmes to have breakout seasons in 2016.  This week UHND will remain on the offensive side of the ball and take a closer look at senior tight end Durham Smythe.

Pedigree

Durham Smythe was an underrated prospect coming out of high school, only earning a 3-star ranking from outlets such as Rivals.com despite an impressive scholarship offer list that included the likes of Florida, Georgia and Michigan.  The Belton, Tx., native committed to the in-state Longhorns in March 2012 but backed off his pledge December the same year due to the uncertain coaching future of then-head coach Mack Brown.  His subsequent commitment to Notre Dame was a significant loss to Texas’ recruiting class.

“[Smythe] was far more important to the class than his three-star composite ranking would indicate,” Burnt Orange Nation, a Longhorns sports outlet, wrote at the time.  As a natural pass catcher with good speed for his size with experience working as an in-line blocker, Smythe was the most well-rounded tight end prospect Texas had landed in years.”

Reason for Optimism

Smythe’s well-roundedness has carried over to the next level where he was the unquestioned starter heading into the 2015 season despite the signing of coveted tight end prospect, Alize’ Jones.  And although Jones was recently named to the John Mackey Award watch list – an annual award given to the nation’s best tight end – Smythe should yet again be Notre Dame’s best option at tight end for 2016.

Head coach Brian Kelly has been experimenting with moving Jones to the W wide receiver spot, a position much more open with the retirement of Corey Robinson.  And it’s a position for which Jones has strong feelings.

“I really, really like [it],” Jones told the media about playing W.  “The coaches want to be able to look at me and feel confident they can put me out there in any situation.”

With Jones dabbling with the W wide receiver position, Smythe will be looked upon to play the primary tight end role, particularly considering the meager production at tight end after he suffered a significant injury against Virginia last season.  In Smythe’s absence Notre Dame’s tight ends only accounted for 16 receptions, 208 yards and zero touchdowns.

Reason for Doubt

Just because Smythe is expected to be Notre Dame’s primary tight end does not mean the position is considered to be a strength.  Despite Smythe’s potential he has little to no experience, redshirting his freshman season and catching only one pass in 2014 after being unable to surpass then-starting tight end Ben Koyack on the depth chart.  While Smythe’s ability to make an impact in his first true shot at being the starter in 2015 was derailed by injury, questions about his ability to produce remained in the short time he was on the field.

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Smythe returned from his injury in time to face the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl with great expectations.  In his absence Notre Dame converted a lowly 56-percent of its red zone attempts into touchdowns, a poor enough showing to rank No. 91 in the nation.  Brian Kelly felt Smythe’s return would play a big role in changing that misfortune.

“I think he became a guy that was going to be heavily counted on in some certain situations, short yardage situations, red zone passes, things of that nature,” Kelly told the media before the big game.  “[Durham]’s the kind of guy that I think DeShone [Kizer] probably would’ve leaned on in those kinds of situations.”

As high as Kelly’s expectations might have been for Smythe’s impact on Notre Dame’s offense, the results of the Fiesta Bowl told a different story, with Smythe recording one reception for 5 yards.

Durham Smythe’s 2016 Outlook

Notre Dame has been on a run at the tight end position the past decade, producing the likes of Anthony Fasano, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas and former Pro Bowl MVP, Kyle Rudolph, a star-studded cast worthy of earning the moniker “Tight End U”.  But since tight ends coach Scott Booker took over in 2012 Notre Dame has been on the decline at the position, even with the influx of blue-chip talent.

It’s difficult to project production for a player like Smythe – one who has only four career receptions heading into his senior year.  Irish fans should expect more out of the tight end position this fall but considering the bar was set so low in 2015, there really is nowhere to go but up.  Until Smythe shows more on the field Irish fans should adopt a “prove it” approach, particularly since the production at tight end has continued to diminish since Booker’s takeover.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for The Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor.  He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him.  Scott can be reached at scottjanssenhp@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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