Tight ends play integral role in Irish offense
Daniel O'Boyle | Friday, November 3, 2017
When Notre Dame needed to strike back fast after giving up an early punt-block touchdown to North Carolina State this past weekend, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush looked to graduate student tight end Durham Smythe for a score.
When the Irish needed a conversion on third-and-six just outside the red zone with the score tied at 14-14, Wimbush looked to Smythe again, who caught the ball at the sideline and managed to keep his toes in bounds for a crucial first down, setting up a touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson on the next play of the game that gave the Irish a lead they would never again relinquish.
Although collegiate tight ends typically don’t see a huge share of targets, a reliance on the tight end position shouldn’t be a surprise when you remember the Irish have a prolific history there. But although Smythe noted the record of Irish players at the position before him, he said he believes this year’s group brings a depth of talent the Irish have rarely had.
“There’s a responsibility I think as a tight end here,” Smythe said. “We’re almost carrying the torch a little bit because there’s so many guys. It dates back to the ’70s and the ’80s, even a few before that. There is a bit of a responsibility to keep up that tradition in our room and I think as a group we’re doing the best we can there.
“I’ve been around some great tight ends here. I was here with Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack earlier in my career, and those rosters were a little bit top-heavy at the position. But, as I’ve said numerous times this season, this roster is deep from top to bottom and I think that’s just a testament to these young guys coming in and being ready to play right away.”
The Irish success there should be even less of a surprise when you remember Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long has become known for his work with the position. That started back in his playing days, as Long was named a Division II All-American at the role by the Football Gazette. Since then, he moved into a role as tight ends coach at Illinois and Arizona State, coaching standout tight ends Jay Prosch at the former and Chris Coyle at the latter, before becoming offensive coordinator at Memphis. Smythe said he was extremely pleased Long became the team’s offensive coordinator and the choice played a role in him returning to the team for a fifth year.
“It’s very exciting to have Coach Long leading the offense,” Smythe said. “He played tight end in college; he was an All-American. The past, and what he’s done with tight ends in the past, has shown that he really knows how to utilize them both in the pass game and the run game. When I finally heard about it and got to research him a little bit it was exciting.
“It’s kind of crazy how well it worked out for the team and me personally coming back. I don’t think I could have asked for someone better who has played the position, who knows the position, who has coached the position and was an offensive coordinator. The first day I came back from Christmas break I met with him, I was back earlier than some of the other guys and right away I knew from a personality standpoint I clicked with him. That was obvious. And he showed me some film of some guys he utilized and I felt extremely confident in how he was going to utilize our room.”
Together, the Irish tight end group has combined for 356 yards on 30 receptions, with Smythe’s touchdown last week the second the group has scored this season, while he also leads the group in receiving yards with 182.
Yet pass-catching has been just a small part of the game for Smythe. The graduate student may have caught his sixth career touchdown last week, but he remains known primarily as a blocking tight end in contrast with junior Alize Mack, who is known as the bigger receiving threat in the group. Smythe said that although he enjoys catching passes, he gains an equal amount of pleasure from blocking in the run game.
“I think we’ve progressed pretty well as an offense,” Smythe said. “And then our role as tight ends, it’s difficult to explain because we’re doing so many different things on every game plan and on every play. It’s nice to be renowned for making a big plan in the last game, but for me it’s just the same as making a play on the edge, sealing the edge and helping Josh Adams run 77 yards for a touchdown. There’s been some progression in terms of making some bigger production in the passing game for me personally, but I think it’s something we’ve done as a tight end unit the whole season.”