Durham Smythe latest Notre Dame starter who may return from injury
SOUTH BEND — It would seem too convoluted of a scenario for the College Football Selection Committee to take on, but the growing possibility that Notre Dame could be at its strongest in the postseason is intriguing in and of itself.
On Tuesday, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly casually dropped another mini-bombshell, that No. 1 tight end Durham Smythe might be back for a bowl or playoff game after the junior starter had been ruled out for the season back in mid-September.
That comes a week after Kelly revealed No. 1 nose guard Jarron Jones’ supposed season-ending knee injury in mid-August was healing ahead of schedule and that he was on a trajectory to play in a postseason game.
The first order of business is Saturday night’s clash with rival Boston College (3-7) at Fenway Park in Boston, technically a home game for the CFP No. 4 and AP fifth-ranked Irish (9-1). The 176th neutral-site game in Notre Dame history will also be the closest to the campus (3.9 miles) of the opposing team.
How Notre Dame fares in the 23rd matchup with the only other Catholic university playing FBS football will have some bearing toward what ND’s postseason might look like, a convincing win perhaps eliminating anything but a New Year’s Six bowl or playoff game from the Irish scenarios.
How effective either Smythe or Jones would be after months away from practice and games is too hard to gauge at this point, but it would be reasonable to assume that they might at least be able to be part of a rotation of contributing players.
When healthy, each is the best option at his respective position, hands down. And both play positions where the production has been good but not outrageously so, as has been the case at quarterback and running back, other positions in which starters were lost for long stretches.
Smythe underwent knee and shoulder surgery Sept. 15, three days after the Irish survived Virginia, 34-27, on the road. He was injured on the second-to-last offensive play for the Irish, just ahead of DeShone Kizer’s 39-yard pass to Will Fuller with 12 seconds left in game 2 of this season.
The injury was a torn MCL to his right knee. He had been playing with shoulder discomfort, so that surgery was scheduled for the same day.
Jones suffered his injury, an MCL tear, in a preseason practice session on Aug. 14.
Since both players redshirted as freshmen for non-injury reasons, returning to play this postseason wouldn’t affect their remaining eligibility. Neither would have been a viable candidate for a sixth year, since the initial missed season didn’t involve an injury.
Jones can return for a fifth year in 2016. Smythe would theoretically have two seasons left after this one.
Sophomore Greer Martini and grad Jarrett Grace will tag team at the strongside linebacker spot, per Kelly, Saturday night against B.C., in replacing injured starter James Onwualu.
The junior was injured and left the game in the first quarter of last Saturday’s 28-7 win over Wake Forest at Notre Dame Stadium. Kelly later revealed Onwualu suffered a sprained MCL of his left knee.
“He was coming on,” Kelly said of Onwualu, who has 36 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble. "He was playing his best football. He's gone from being a very, very good cover-down ’backer to somebody that was tackling effectively. And probably as big a loss in special teams.”
From a style standpoint, though, this BC game and Stanford on Nov. 28, are better matchups for the Martini/Grace combo than many of ND’s previous games.
Onwualu plays much better than either Martini or Grace in space, but BC and Stanford tend to play in tighter formations, and Martini and Grace both have excelled against those kinds of offenses.
Martini has 29 tackles, with a tackle for loss. Grace, a former starter at middle linebacker and back on the field after missing half of 2013 and all of 2014 with multiple leg fractures, has 12 tackles.
“I think we'll get fundamentally sound football,” Kelly said of the pair.
Senior C.J. Prosise out since early in ND’s 42-30 win at Pitt on Nov. 7, was expected to practice full speed Tuesday for the first time since suffering a concussion and neck injury in that game.
Prosise was cleared for “football activities” last Thursday, but was held out of the Wake Forest game. Freshman Josh Adams rushed for more than 140 yards against both Pitt and Wake in his absence. The nation’s No. 23 rusher stands 25 yards away from the 18th 1,000-yard rushing season in school history.
“We're a better football team with both of them, without question,” Kelly said. “C.J.'s an elite player. Getting him back this week will be beneficial to our football team.”
Also back from a concussion that scratched him from the Wake Forest game is sophomore Nic Weishar, part of the four-man mix at tight end.
Starting nose guard Daniel Cage, another player held out of the Wake game with a concussion, has not been fully cleared but, per Kelly, is making progress toward doing so.