SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Durham Smythe injured his knee at about the most inopportune time conceivable.
Back on Sept. 12, Smythe had his knee rolled up on by a teammate late in the fourth quarter against Virginia in Charlottesville. He went down, but with time running out, felt like he couldn’t afford to writhe on the ground in pain. So he got himself off the field, found the first table he saw — it wasn’t the trainer’s table — and sat down.
While digesting the immediate aftereffects of his knee getting messed up, the crowd at Scott Stadium — at least, those wearing Notre Dame apparel — let out a roar. DeShone Kizer had just found Will Fuller for a game-winning 39-yard touchdown that saved Notre Dame from an ignominious beginning to the season.
“That was a wild 20 seconds,” Smythe said. “It happened, I was like, my leg is messed up and then I was like well, if I stay on the ground, is there going to be a runoff or something so I was like, I gotta get off.”
As it turns out, Smythe tore his MCL the play before Kizer’s game-winning heave. He injured his shoulder earlier in the game, too, and had to have an operation on that as well. He underwent both procedures at the same time, and after that three-hour surgery, was expected to miss the remainder of the season.
“For a month and a half, I was struggling,” Smythe said. “I was in bed, couldn’t really sleep right because of my shoulder, couldn’t move my leg. I looked like a trauma patient for a month and a half there.”
But by November, Smythe was able to begin aggressively working out. He said his strength came back quickly and even feels a bit stronger than he was before the season. So when Fiesta Bowl practices began earlier this month, the Belton, Texas native was able to pick up where he left off in early September.
Smythe’s return gives Notre Dame an important injection of experience into a tight end depth chart peppered by inexperienced players. By no means is Smythe a grizzled veteran — he redshirted the 2013 season and only caught one pass playing behind Ben Koyack in 2014 — but he’s the most complete tight end Notre Dame has, which should help the Irish in the kind of red zone situations that’ve been a problem this year.
“The tight end position is pretty young,” quarterback DeShone Kizer said. “We have a lot of guys out there who are either in their second year or in their first year playing the position. Durham comes back and is able to lead that group on the field and truly be kind of a rock for that group.”
Notre Dame only converted 56 percent of its red zone opportunities into touchdowns, ranking 91st among FBS teams. In a season of narrow margins, converting some of those turnovers or field goals into six points could’ve swung things closer to the College Football Playoff for an otherwise prolific Irish offense.
“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,” coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s the kind of guy that I think DeShone probably would’ve leaned on in those kind of situations.”
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Notre Dame’s tight ends combined for 17 receptions, 204 yards and a touchdown, which came on a fake field goal against Virginia when Kizer — before Malik Zaire suffered his season-ending injury — flipped a pass to Smythe for a score. That counts as a red zone conversion, but with Smythe back, there should be an added opportunity for Notre Dame to score a touchdown in a more traditional fashion if and when it gets inside Ohio State’s 20-yard line on New Year’s Day.
“In the red zone, you’re trying to keep the defense guessing with what you’re doing,” Smythe said. “… You want to rely on someone who can bring some consistency to the table and that’s what I try to do.”