Texas matchup means a lot to Notre Dame TE Smythe

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A tweaked hamstring during preseason camp bothered Durham Smythe in more ways than one.

The minor injury sidelined him more than a week while he was trying to solidify his spot as Notre Dame’s starting tight end. Battling impatience can be tough with playing time on the line.

But the injury also could have threatened Smythe’s status for the season opener against Texas. It’s a game the Texas native and former Longhorn commit doesn’t want to miss.

“Going back to the whole hamstring tweak, it frustrated me that much more because I’ve been looking forward to this day for so long,” Smythe said. “Thank goodness it was just something small. I feel fine now. It means a lot. It’s just the next game, but to me it’s a little bit more.”

The 6-foot-5, 245-pound product of Belton High School attended every Texas home game as a junior. The following March he gave the Longhorns his verbal commitment. That’s when he got to know a number of Texas players including projected starting quarterback Tyrone Swoopes.

Before Smythe backed out of his pledge to Texas in December of his senior year, Swoopes, a fellow 2013 recruit, was supposed to be throwing passes to Smythe. Now they’ll watch each other from opposite sidelines.

“I’m pretty close to a lot of the guys on the team,” Smythe said. “It will be good to see them and hopefully with a good outcome.”

Smythe said he hasn’t communicated with any of those players in the last few months. Maybe the picture of Notre Dame’s “Beat Texas” countdown saved as the lock screen on Smythe’s cell phone has something to do with that.

Choosing to leave his home state for Notre Dame, which he did with a verbal commitment in January 2013, wasn’t easy for Smythe. If the Irish lose the season opener, he’ll likely hear plenty from people back home.

“It was really tough for me,” Smythe said. “I felt like at that point I really couldn’t make a wrong decision. Texas is a great school, great program. Notre Dame is obviously a great school, great program. It really came down to what I felt the most comfortable with.

“That surprises a lot of people. UT is 30 minutes from where I live and this is across the country, but it’s just a sense that you get when you’re on campus connecting with people. That’s what finalized it.”

In the present, Smythe is trying to finalize his spot as the starting tight end. He leads a group of five tight ends who have combined for one career catch in college — his own seven-yard reception last season against Arizona State. But while Smythe had to sit with his injury, the other four tight ends have made strong cases for playing time.

 “There is that sense of competition, but that helps all of us,” Smythe said. “There are guys who come in and have strengths in certain areas of the game. If those strengths are strong enough and you can play and help the team, then sure, we’ll find a role for that. That competition only goes back to how talented this group is as a whole.”

Sophomore Nic Weishar and freshman Alizé Jones are natural pass catchers. Sophomore Tyler Luatua and fifth-year senior Chase Hounshell are better-suited as blockers. Smythe falls somewhere near the middle of the spectrum.

The good news for the group is that head coach Brian Kelly said he’s open to playing multiple tight ends in the same formation. Asked if formations with two tight ends were a possibility, Kelly responded saying the Irish could use three.

Why stop there? Smythe joked about playing five tight ends with an empty backfield or even throwing one of them in at quarterback.

“We love that. One, two, three — obviously we’re preferring three. All of us, as a group, love that,” Smythe said. “We’ve really recognized, especially this spring and leading into this fall camp, that we have a lot of guys who can make plays in every facet of the game. If there’s an opportunity at three-plus tight ends on the field, we’re, as a group, in support of that.”

Just as long as Smythe gets to take on some of his old friends on the field next week. Bragging rights will be on the line.

“There will definitely,” Smythe said, “be some established.”

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame’s Durham Smythe (80) catches a pass Saturday, April 11, 2015, at Notre Dame spring football practice at LaBar Practice Complex in South Bend. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ