Notre Dame's Durham Smythe, tight ends bond over flamboyant facial hair

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

CULVER, Ind. — Durham Smythe’s mustache doesn’t care who Notre Dame’s starting quarterback is.

It rests, unfazed by speculation, a furry brown caterpillar perched proudly atop the tight end’s upper lip. It’s a remnant of a bygone era, seemingly yanked out of a '70s buddy cop movie and dropped unnaturally into fall practice at Notre Dame.

It’s a fashion statement, a lifestyle, a pinch of masculine panache.

It’s also the lone criteria for entrance into an exceedingly exclusive club.

“A couple days ago, we thought we’d try something that would bring us together in an appearance way, as a unit,” Smythe, a senior and the team’s incumbent starter, said of the Irish tight ends. “And if it makes us look a little more mature along the way, that doesn’t hurt.”

And so it came to pass that when the Irish tight ends boarded buses for Culver, Ind., on Friday, junior Nic Weishar did so with a line of facial hair that curled like handlebars from one end of his chin to the other. Junior Tyler Luatua’s mustache was less pronounced — a wisp of black hair that might have been drawn on in permanent marker.

They were together — a ‘stache squad — united in football and flair.

And we're off☘ #CampStache2016pic.twitter.com/LtcKIHYgV0

— Lyler Tuatua (@Luatua13) August 5, 2016

“Actually, collectively in our room, I think we’re all pretty similar people from a personality standpoint,” Smythe explained. “I think we’re a little bit more old-fashioned than a lot of people on the team. We like to try some stuff that shakes it up a little bit.”

On Wednesday, Notre Dame’s roster got shaken up in all the wrong ways, as sophomore tight end Alizé Jones announced that he would miss the season because of academics. That meant losing the bulk of the tight end position’s pass-catching experience as well, as Jones hauled in 13 catches for 190 receiving yards in 2015.

But even without the hope of an imminent on-field future, Jones was still engaged in Notre Dame’s first fall practice on Saturday morning. When Weishar chugged past linebacker Josh Barajas to snag a long touchdown pass down the seam, Jones took off after him, roaring, “Tight End U! Tight End U! Tight End U!” as he ran.

Even without a mustache, Jones was a part of the tight end team.

“That’s huge for me and all the other guys,” Smythe said of Jones’ enthusiasm. “He’s always been a big energy guy for us, and for him to keep doing that, I think that keeps everyone up.

“But from another standpoint, having to miss a year and come out here and still practice every day, if he still has that kind of energy, you can see how he is as a person. It’s been one day, and I’ve gained a lot of respect for him already.”

After a relatively forgettable 2015 season, respect is something Notre Dame’s tight ends will have to reclaim. Long touted as Notre Dame’s most complete tight end, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Smythe played in just three games because of knee and shoulder injuries sustained last fall. In three seasons and 16 career games, the Belton, Texas, product has just two catches and one touchdown — which came on a fake field goal against Virginia last September.

While he’s proven his worth to his coaches, Smythe’s production has yet to translate.

“With Durham back, he's a guy that can do a lot of jobs for us,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “He knows the position very well. He can catch it, and he can run block for us. He’s very committed. He’s healthy.”

Beyond Smythe, Kelly believes Weishar — a 6-4, 240-pound junior — has developed adequate blocking ability to match his natural pass-catching prowess. Luatua (6-3, 255) and senior Jacob Matuska (6-5, 275) will function largely as in-line blockers, adding grit to the edge of the Irish offensive line.

Add them all together, and even without Jones, the tight ends are rich with talent.

“We've got two guys that are multidimensional that can do all the things (we need), and two real physical guys at the point of attack,” Kelly assessed. “It gives us really great depth.”

That depth will be tested in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 4, when the Irish open their season at Texas in front of more than 100,000 frenzied fans. It will also serve as a homecoming of sorts for the veteran Smythe, who grew up roughly 60 miles outside Austin and was verbally committed to Texas before flipping to Notre Dame.

When the Irish take the field for the first offensive snap of the 2016 season, roughly 35 of Smythe’s family members and friends will be jammed inside Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to watch him play.

And if looking good is half the battle, the Longhorns don’t stand a chance.

“We wanted to do something that would make us look good as well,” Smythe explained Saturday, the mustache twisting and hopping with every passing word. “We obviously pulled that off.”

Durham Smythe's mustache did interviews after practice today. pic.twitter.com/3Lc9KyjkqG

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) August 6, 2016

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Durham Smythe makes a catch during the Notre Dame football practice in Notre Dame Stadium Friday, April 15, 2016. Tribune photo/MICHAEL CATERINA