Notre Dame might have reached the College Football Playoff without the 2020 breakout seasons from then-sophomore running back Kyren Williams and freshman tight end Michael Mayer, but it is hard to imagine. Just as hard to imagine, assuming the two would be even better.
That isn’t to say neither has room to improve, but rather that each was that good in 2020 and progress is not linear. But despite losing the winningest quarterback in Irish history, two leading receivers, an NFL draft-worthy tight end and four offensive linemen, Williams and Mayer expect such improvement.
They have been expecting it since before they left Dallas after Notre Dame’s blowout loss to Alabama in the pseudo-Rose Bowl.
“We’re going to get to that point where we can have that firepower offense or whatever that you seem to think we don’t have now,” Williams said immediately after the New Year’s Day loss. “I feel like this offense has the exact same firepower as the team we just played.”
In his first postgame media availability of his collegiate career — not exactly an ideal moment for that debut — Mayer doubled down on Williams’ thinking.
“I agree with Kyren,” he said. “We’re just going to come in, keep working. We had a great offense, great firepower this year. It’s not going to stop here. We’re going to keep it going into next year.”
After Williams gained 1,438 total yards from scrimmage and scored 14 touchdowns, more firepower from him would not be a small accomplishment. Mayer’s freshman year included 450 receiving yards with a pair of touchdowns; more is within reason but should still be commended.
Every word this spring has indicated the pair have indeed continued to develop, and the 2021 offense will now go as they go. When asked about each individually, Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ first lines did away with any tempered hype.
“For Kyren specifically, it’s how many different ways can we get him involved in the offense,” Rees said last week.
His Mayer praise was blunter: When asked if an offense can rely on a tight end as its go-to guy, Rees quickly said, “It was in 2012, I can tell you that. I don’t see why it should be any different in terms of being able to feature someone.”
Involving Williams in as many ways as possible largely means moving him around the formation. By no means is he switching to receiver, but Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game (broadcast exclusively on Peacock at 12:30 ET) will undoubtedly show Williams lined up at slot a good bit. If that falls short of half the time, adding in running back motions might push such receiver alignments to half his workload.
“It gives me the ability to really showcase who I am as a player,” Williams said Saturday. “Because I’m not just a running back. I consider myself as an athlete and really just a ballplayer, so I can play outside, inside, in the backfield, me and [rising sophomore running back Chris Tyree] can split it.
“I feel like with that ability, it really allows me to be out there. It doesn’t allow teams to really key on one person, it allows us to open the field up, open the playbook up.”
The January f-word of firepower has not been mentioned much this spring, but “open the playbook up” may as well be a euphemism for it.
With the receivers still in question, that firepower will start with Williams and Mayer. It is steep praise to simply wonder if Mayer’s offensive impact can compare to Tyler Eifert’s in 2012. Eifert led the Irish in catches (50), receiving yards (685) and receiving touchdowns (four). Those numbers, in particular, would not be massive jumps for Mayer, and of the returning roster, Mayer already leads Notre Dame in all three categories.
He will not assume that role is headed his way, but he knows to prepare for it.
“If it happens to be I’m the number one target this year, that’s gonna happen,” Mayer said. “That’s not going to be my set goal for this year. I’m not going to tell myself I need to be the number one target-getter this season. I think it’s just a matter of knowing what the coaches want me to do, knowing what I have to work on, just letting the game speak for itself.”
Mayer’s stats may depend on Williams’ role in the passing game, an odd overlap for a tight end and a running back. Common sense suggests defenses will bracket Mayer’s route (double cover, but devotedly so) on more plays than not. Doing so would occupy a safety and, likely, the best coverage linebacker. Who would then cover a shifty running back? A lesser linebacker? The other safety, thereby leaving all receivers in man coverage?
“To have one guy that’s being doubled requires you to have a secondary option that can expose a defense,” head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. “One’s not good enough. If it’s just Mayer, you can make it difficult for your offense to be explosive. We have to make teams pay if they want to try to take him out of the game.”
Williams’ viability in the passing game could force defenses away from bracketing Mayer, reducing the coverage on Notre Dame’s best offensive NFL prospect. That design comes from Rees, but the intention to make it work has been evident since the last time anyone saw the Irish on the field.
“We know what we have to do,” Williams said in AT&T Stadium. “We know the work starts tomorrow. We’re ready for what’s ahead of us and ready to take it on.”