Notre Dame Football: Durham Smythe

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Scott Booker and his players take a lot of pride in the tradition of excellence their group has produced. But despite Tight End U facing more uncertainty at the position than in recent memory, Booker, the Notre Dame tight ends coach, does not find himself having to explain the legacy that this relatively young unit is trying to carry on.

[+] EnlargeBen Koyack
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesBen Koyack emerged as a receiving option last season, setting himself up for a breakout season as a junior.
"When they come here and they get recruited, it's easy to know about Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, Anthony Fasano, Mark Bavaro back in the day," Booker said. "And obviously now recently, Tyler (Eifert), Kyle and Troy (Niklas). That's easy. That's what you do in recruiting, you do your homework.

"And when you do your homework as a tight end, coming out of high school, if you want to be successful, if you want to be on national TV every day and you want to catch a lot of balls and you want to have an opportunity to go to the league, I don't know what place is better. So you don't have to tell them where they're at."

Niklas' surprising early departure to the NFL put the Fighting Irish's tight ends on a learning curve this spring. Ben Koyack was forced into the No. 1 spot, with redshirt freshmen Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe behind him. Freshmen Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua will arrive this summer.

Koyack has drawn plenty of praise for the way he has carried himself among the youngsters since assuming his new role atop the depth chart.

"I think just the way he's coming every day prepared, ready to go," Booker said. "Watching the film before we watch the film as a unit. Talking to the guys, talking to Mike Heuerman, going out and eating with those guys. And just showing them how to be Notre Dame football players, and specifically Notre Dame tight ends, and the expectations that are put on us on a day-in, day-out basis. In all those facets he's been doing a better job continuing to grow."

Booker didn't want to compare Koyack to anyone before him, but the Oil City, Pa., native spoke with a renewed sense of confidence early in the spring, which can likely be attributed to his strong finish to the 2013 season. As a No. 2 tight end who was relegated to mostly blocking duties for much of last season, Koyack recorded 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns, with all of those catches but a 19-yard scoring strike coming during the Irish's final six games.

Notre Dame is hoping that such improvement can have a trickle-down effect throughout the unit. Heuerman, who saw his redshirt all but confirmed early last season after having surgery to repair a hernia, is looking to add more weight, with the 225-pounder saying he sees himself adding 15 more pounds.

"It's all about making plays at the end of the day, and that's what I know I have to do," Heuerman said. "And now that Troy's gone, it kind of opens the door for someone to step in, so I'm excited to be able to be here now competing for that position and be here for summer and going to camp and (at the) end of the season still competing and making plays and doing what I do best, so I look forward to that."

Irish lunch links

April, 8, 2014
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Does UConn win it again tonight? Or do the Irish get it done?

Koyack ready to handle bigger role

March, 11, 2014
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The first reaction, like that of most others, was a bit of shock. Then the personal ramifications set in for Ben Koyack.

[+] EnlargeBen Koyack
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesBen Koyack will get his chance as Notre Dame's tight end this fall.
Troy Niklas was gone a year earlier than expected, Tight End U. was in need of a new face and, well, who better to step up than a rising senior who saw his production jump down the stretch last season.

"Yeah, I'm the oldest guy in the group, and I'm a guy I feel that the younger guys respect," Koyack said when asked if he felt like a No. 1 tight end. "And that's something I feel like definitely makes me comfortable out there."

Notre Dame will turn to Koyack now to be the next-in-line at its position of strength, following Niklas, Tyler Eifert, Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Anthony Fasano. Of Koyack's 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns last season, all but a 19-yard scoring grab came during the Irish's final six games. The primary blocker in two-tight end sets knows he'll be asked to do more now, and he knows the example he sets this season can pay dividends beyond 2014.

"It just meant to me that I really need to step up," Koyack said. "It's no longer just, 'OK, I've got to be good for that role and just know what the No. 1 guy does.' I've got to be able to do it. I've got to be able to do it in my sleep. I've got to be able to show all the younger guys. I've got to be able to draw it up. It was more or less knowing that I have to accept all the responsibilities that could be thrown on me."

He has taken on a stronger leadership role, shooting text messages to redshirt freshman Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe and inviting them to his room to review plays. And while he says he's more focused on doing whatever is required of him in 2014, he is well aware of what he is stepping into: A lineage that, this May, could see a fifth straight Irish starting tight end taken in the NFL draft's first two rounds.

"You don't come here unless you want to do that," Koyack said of being a starter. "Coming here a freshman, every one wants to get out here and be that No. 1 guy, especially with the reputation like we have. That's pretty much the reason I came here, to have that role. It's something I do definitely look forward to."

Position battles to watch: No. 4

February, 18, 2014
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Our series looking at the top position battles to watch this spring continues with a spot the Irish probably didn't think they'd need to worry about in 2014.

Tight end

[+] EnlargeBen Koyack
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesBen Koyack will step into a lead role in Notre Dame's offense with Troy Niklas leaving early.
To be sure, the fact that this is not a discussion about the No. 1 spot should calm a few nerves, if that's possible. Still, the surprising departure of Troy Niklas has accelerated the learning curve for what is a deep but relatively untested group of tight ends on the Notre Dame roster.

Ben Koyack emerged plenty last year in the No. 2 role, stepping up to catch 10 passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns -- with all but one of those catches and scores coming during the season's final six games. The 6-foot-5, 261-pound junior took plenty of pressure off Niklas and the rest of Notre Dame's more prominent pass-catchers, and he was set to build off that performance going into his senior year in 2014.

Now? The pressure is on Koyack to perform as the top target at tight end, and it is up to someone behind him to develop as a blocker and become another reliable receiving option for the Irish offense. Fortunately for Notre Dame, there are plenty of bodies at that position for a school that can boast the moniker Tight End U., and competition this spring will be a nice starting point to see who emerges in the fall.

Alex Welch is gone, choosing to play his final season at Miami (Ohio), but Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman should both have benefited from redshirt campaigns last fall as freshmen, allowing them to develop in the weight room and be more physically ready for the pounding they are sure to take at the position. Smythe was listed last year at 6-4 1/2, 235 pounds. Heuerman was at 6-3 1/2, 225, and he also had the added benefit of enrolling last spring.

It doesn't hurt that the Irish added a pair of 2014 ESPN 300 prospects in Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar, but they won't be on campus until fall practice. For now, it is up to Smythe and Heuerman to gain separation and prove that they are viable options if and when their numbers are called.
Class is back in session today. And that doesn't just mean that yours truly has returned from vacation. Notre Dame's summer classes start today, which also marks the first day of the rest of 18 football newcomers' lives.

The Irish reeled in ESPN's No. 4 recruiting class in the nation for 2013 prospects -- a ranking that had included No. 10 overall prospect Eddie Vanderdoes -- and a majority of that group officially begins their college lives today.

Steve Elmer, Mike Heuerman, James Onwualu, Corey Robinson and Malik Zaire already received head-starts, having enrolled this past semester and going through spring ball with their new teammates. Here's a refresher course on some of the new faces on campus today. (* denotes an ESPN150 member; ** denotes an ESPN300 member)
Our series continues with the wide receivers and tight ends.

Starters returning: T.J. Jones
Players returning: DaVaris Daniels, Davonte' Neal, Daniel Smith, Chris Brown, Justin Ferguson, Luke Massa, Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack, Alex Welch
Players departing: Robby Toma, John Goodman, Tyler Eifert, Jake Golic
Newcomers: James Onwualu, Corey Robinson, William Fuller, Torii Hunter Jr., Mike Heuerman, Durham Smythe, Jacob Matuska

The breakdown: The biggest hole will clearly be left by Eifert, who broke a number of records at Tight End U. Watching the development of the converted linebacker Niklas, along with the growth of Koyack and recovery of Welch (ACL tear), is important to keep an eye on.

Still, Notre Dame has to feel pretty good about what they return among their pass-catchers, especially in light of the Discover BCS National Championship. Jones and Daniels were two of the few who brought their A-games on Jan. 7 against Alabama, and both look like legitimate go-to options heading into 2013. Expect to see plenty of Everett Golson-to-Daniels connections over the next three years.

Neal is an interesting prospect considering he spent the majority of his freshman season simply waving the fair catch signal. He was ESPN's No. 8 overall prospect for a reason, and he should have the chance to show off his athleticism in the slot more now with Toma out of the picture. Brown, meanwhile, made arguably the biggest offensive play of the year for the Irish and, because of his speed, is someone defenders need to keep a close eye on whenever he takes the field.

Onwualu and Robinson enrolled in January and should have a leg up on the other newcomers when fall camp commences.

Joey Brooks looks to give it a go

March, 1, 2013
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Joey Brooks will not be playing basketball at Notre Dame next season. Whether that means he won't be playing anything at Notre Dame next season remains to be seen.

The fourth-year men's basketball guard plans to give it a go with the Irish football team this spring at tight end, though anything beyond that remains up in the air at this point.

Brooks, who understood that minutes on the hardwood would be limited coming into this year, has spent the year on the bench in street clothes and is keeping his options open.

“He’s been great,” Mike Brey said during Thursday's Big East coaches' teleconference. “We talked in the spring and it was very much man-to-man. I think Joey knew, given what we had returning and Cam [Biedscheid] coming in, that it was going to be hard for him to really find good minutes. And so we talked about what would be the best situation for him, and my feeling was to use him as a practice player and to use him as an older guy and leader -- he’s been great in both of those things, and has understood that and has been really supportive. I maybe was a little concerned could he do it over the long haul? Will it get old eventually? ‘Gosh, I want to play.’ But his frame of mind has been really great with that.

"And I think he’s got a lot of different options next year. He’s got a job offer in New York City. Could he use the year of eligibility to go somewhere else and play after graduation? Basketball, that is. And the one thing he’s really going to take a look at here is trying to be involved with our football program. And I’m really supportive of all those. I’m excited for him and he’s excited.”

Brooks averaged 2.3 points and eight minutes per game for Notre Dame. On the gridiron this spring, he would be challenging returning tight ends Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack, along with early enrollee Mike Heuerman and Alex Welch, who missed last season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during camp.

The Irish will also welcome Durham Smythe in the summer.

Folston stays with Notre Dame

February, 6, 2013
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ESPN 150 athlete Tarean Folston (Cocoa, Fla./Cocoa) made his pledge to Notre Dame official Wednesday afternoon, becoming the Irish's ninth ESPN 150 commit, 12th ESPN 300 commit and 23rd overall player to sign his national letter of intent with the program.

Our Corey Long rates Folston a 4 on the immediate impact scale , saying he should be able to contribute upon his arrival to campus, be it at running back, receiver or defensive back.

Notre Dame currently sits at No. 4 in RecruitingNation's rankings, and the school will wait like everyone else until 8 p.m. ET tonight to hear the announcement of Eddie Vanderdoes (Auburn, Calif./Placer), the nation's top defensive tackle.

Here are the names that came through the fax machines for Notre Dame earlier today:

Irish recruiting roundup

January, 30, 2013
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Seven days till signing day ...
Durham Smythe was once committed to Texas. He was considered a Stanford lean. He had a trip to Michigan scheduled for next weekend.

On Sunday, he committed to Notre Dame.

Smythe, a four-star prospect, becomes the Irish's 23rd commitment for the class of 2013 and their third tight end prospect of this class.

The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder gave his word to head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin near the end of his official visit this weekend, our Max Olson reports , and he will look to become the next in line at Tight End U following the departure of record-setter Tyler Eifert. (Eifert's predecessor, Kyle Rudolph, was voted Pro Bowl MVP on Sunday night.)

“I talked to the staff and they’re stacked with three junior tight ends and then I know they have me and Mike,” Smythe told Olson. “They use a lot of tight ends in a way I’m familiar with, so hopefully we can continue that tradition.”

Notre Dame remains No. 3 in ESPN's class of 2013 recruiting rankings , trailing No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama.

Below, we break down the Irish's 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes. The 2013 class features nine ESPN 150 prospects (*), three ESPN300 prospects (**), one five-star commit, 18 four-stars and four three-stars. The class of 2014 consists of four players, all of whom are ESPN Watch List members.

Class of 2013
Class of 2014
  • Watch List OLB Greer Martini (Woodberry Forest, Va./Woodberry Forest)
  • Watch List OT Jay Hayes (Brooklyn, N.Y./Poly Prep)
  • Watch List OT Jimmy Byrne (Cleveland/Saint Ignatius)
  • Watch List WR Justin Brent (Speedway, Ind./Speedway)

Irish recruiting roundup

January, 23, 2013
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