Smythe making a move on Notre Dame depth chart
If starting spots can be won in spring football, pencil in Durham Smythe at tight end.
A little more then halfway through Notre Dame's 15 spring practices, Smythe, a junior in the fall, appears to have surged ahead of sophomore-to-be Tyler Luatua at the top of the depth chart.
“I’ll defer those things to Coach (Brian Kelly), but I do know that Durham has really done everything that we’ve asked him to do so far,” tight ends coach Scott Booker said following practice No. 9 last Wednesday before a weeklong break for Easter. “As far as his development, I like where he’s at right now.”
Kelly was more straightforward.
“I think Durham Smythe, you start there,” Kelly said. “He gets the bulk of the work, and I think our second tight end (is) Luatua, and (we're) trying to find the third.”
With a lack of experience in the group, any declarations at the position seem open to change. The five current scholarship tight ends on Notre Dame’s roster, including converted defensive lineman Chase Hounshell, have combined for one career catch. It belongs to Smythe, who hauled in a pass against Arizona State for a seven-yard gain last season.
The opportunity is there for anyone willing to fill the empty shoulder pads of Tight End U. The legacy is more than legend. Last season’s starting tight end, Ben Koyack, has a good chance of becoming the sixth consecutive Notre Dame starter to be selected in the NFL Draft.
Is Smythe, who played sparingly in all 13 games as a sophomore, ready to take over?
“That’s our job to get him there,” Booker said. “By September he better be or whoever it is. They gotta be not just physically, but emotionally and mentally ready to be out there and be that guy at the University of Notre Dame at tight end. It’s different than any other place. That’s why he came here. He knew what he was getting himself into, just like all the other guys did.”
The pressure of trying to step into the long line of standout Irish tight ends doesn’t seem to bother Smythe. The Belton, Texas, product has embraced the opportunity.
“It’s funny. The unit as a whole, the tight end unit, gets that a lot,” Smythe said. “It’s kind of an every-year question. A lot of it comes down to not trying to be someone else. You have to be yourself, and you have to try to improve individually.
“I don’t really see it as pressure. I’ve been lucky to have two guys in front of me that are going to be in the NFL — one already is (Troy Niklas) and one’s going to be this season — to learn from and such. I don’t really see it as a burden, but it shows you what this unit at this university is capable of and to hopefully continue that.”
Smythe has shown his catching ability in practices this spring. The bigger demand for the 6-foot-5 Smythe will be taking on blocking roles. He’s added weight each year since arriving at Notre Dame at 235 pounds. He was listed at 242 pounds last fall and said he’s currently up to around 250 pounds.
“I can definitely already tell the difference with in-line blocking and being able to move people,” Smythe said. “My technique is correct.”
Smythe welcomes the competition from Luatua, who has a naturally thicker build — at 6-3, 250 pounds — and the frame to be a physical blocker. Both Smythe and Luatua were able to work in some two-tight end sets with Koyack in the Music City Bowl win over LSU.
In replacing Koyack, Smythe said, the tight ends need to become consistent.
“He really became a guy, especially his senior year, who could be counted on to get his job done on virtually every play,” Smythe said of Koyack. “That’s the biggest void that we need to focus on being able to fill. As a unit or individuals – me personally, Tyler, Nic (Weishar), whatever — just being people who can be relied on to get our job done both in the run game and in the pass game.”
Incoming freshman Alizé Jones, considered one of the top tight ends in the country in the 2015 recruiting class, will arrive in the summer to challenge Smythe and the rest of the position group for playing time. Considered more of an athlete than a bruiser, Jones may need time to adjust to the physicality of the position at Notre Dame.
As spring football reaches its final weeks, Smythe sits in the unofficial pole position at tight end. Whether he can hold on the spot come September when the Irish open against Texas, the in-state school he originally committed to before choosing Notre Dame, remains to be seen.
“He can be an all-around tight end,” Booker said of Smythe. “He can be an in-line blocker. He can be a split-out guy. He can catch the ball and be a receiving threat down the field. He’s just an all-around guy, and I’ve seen some toughness out of him this spring.”