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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 80 Durham Smythe, tight end

Texas v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Dylan Haines (14) of the Texas Longhorns tackles Durham Smythe (80) of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the first quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-5 ½, 256 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Fifth-year senior with only eligibility in 2017 remaining
Depth chart: Smythe will start at tight end, though junior Alizé Mack could impinge on some of Smythe’s targets in the passing game.
Recruiting: A three-star recruit, per, Smythe flipped his commitment from his home state Texas to Notre Dame shortly before National Signing Day 2013. Smythe also considered Stanford and had offers from Michigan and Florida, among others.

Last year was Smythe’s chance to emerge after preserving a year of eligibility in 2013, watching Ben Koyack man the tight end position in 2014 and suffering injuries in 2015. Instead, the Notre Dame offense seemed to deemphasize the tight end in the passing game, leading to questions if Smythe would return for a fifth and final season.

2014: One catch for seven yards
2015: Three catches for 18 yards and one touchdown
2016: Nine catches for 112 yards and four touchdowns

As much as Smythe was not relied on in 2016, he was a consistent red zone presence and entered this spring as something of a known commodity, certainly so when compared to the other promising talents at tight end. Thus, whenever Irish coach Brian Kelly mentioned Smythe, it was as the leader of the unit as a whole, more than anything else.

“We can play four of those tight ends as receivers,” Kelly said in March. “We think there’s great versatility. We know Durham Smythe has really made great strides. He’s been very impressive.”

Those strides may be late in Smythe’s college career, but Kelly noticed them enough to mention such twice.

“Durham Smythe is in the best condition physically that he’s ever been, mentally and physically,” Kelly said. “With him, Alizé [Mack] and [senior] Nic Weishar, you’ve got a great combination.”

I’m sticking with similar projections to 2015 for Smythe, who may be asked to help out more in the running game, but is a rare veteran pass catcher on an offense counting on experience to keep things productive. That’ll likely mean more targets for Smythe as there are plenty of opportunities to go around. Even if he shares the load, it’ll lead to his breakout season, even if it’s a year later than expected.

“If Smythe gets to 25 catches and scores a few times, it’ll be a nice year — with a fifth-year all but guaranteed. And if the Irish ground game continues to roll, it’ll be because Smythe did a great job as a versatile tight end, perhaps the most traditional of talents Scott Booker has had at the position since he took over.”

It does not take much of a logical leap to figure part of the reason Smythe prolonged his Notre Dame career was new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s tendency to feature the tight end, even two tight ends, in the passing game. Smythe may not reach the 25 catches envisioned by Keith, and that will partly be because Mack will likely receive a touch more attention from junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but Smythe should still outdo last season’s production.

If anything should be carried forward from Smythe’s 2016, it is the four scores on only nine catches. Mack can present the mismatch challenge for defenses leading to chunks of yardage. Smythe can then help finish off drives by using his long and tall frame to secure successes in the red zone.

A year ago, that previous paragraph may have screamed blind optimism. Given Long’s history with tight ends and the Irish bounty at the position, it seems a bit more practical at this point.

Smythe’s size means he will likely carry his football prospects as far as they can go. A strong 2017 could elicit some NFL feelers come spring and perhaps, given strong drill testing, a late-round draft flier.

2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84 (theoretically): Michael Young, receiver
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver