Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 87 Michael Mayer, star sophomore tight end and lead offensive weapon

Michael Mayer
ACC Media
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Listed measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 249 pounds.
2021-22 year, eligibility: A sophomore, Mayer has four seasons of eligibility remaining thanks to the universal pandemic waiver, which means he will almost certainly leave two seasons of eligibility unused.
Depth chart: Mayer will start. Mayer will be on the field for Notre Dame in any down-and-distance at any point on the field. There are no limitations to his usage aside from not wearing him out.
Recruiting: A consensus-four star recruit and the No. 3 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Mayer could have gone just about anywhere. The No. 37 overall prospect and All-American chose the Irish over Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State and Texas, among many others.

CAREER TO DATE
Much was expected from Mayer as soon as he signed with Notre Dame. His height and length already carried enough muscle it seemed he could contribute his freshman season. But not even the most outlandish expectations foresaw Mayer leading the Irish. He finished tied for the team lead with 42 catches (along with receiver Javon McKinley), second on the team with 450 receiving yards (behind McKinley) and two touchdowns.

In his very first game, Mayer finished with three receptions for 38 yards. There was no delay in his production.

That immediate impact led to third-team all-ACC honors and a plethora of freshman All-American nods.

NAME, IMAGE, LIKENESS
This space holds a pretty staunch stance against using the “Baby Gronk” nickname for Mayer. It is overly obvious (both wearing No. 87) and somewhat reductionist. Not every physical and dynamic tight end needs to be compared to arguably the greatest to ever play the position. Even Mayer has said to just call him “Michael.”

But the nickname has caught on, and in the coming era of name, image and likeness legislation, that may present an opportunity for Mayer to ponder.

Comparisons to Rob Gronkowski aside, Mayer has gained notice from those who understand his position. This past draft week, there were some murmurs that Mayer would be a first-round selection in 2021, let alone in 2023.

QUOTE
Most of this piece will dwell on praising Mayer and his potential, both in the short and the long term. So let’s turn this spot over to him for some self-critiquing.

“My blocking needs to get better,” Mayer said last month in discussing how he can improve. “That was some mistakes I made. Obviously, overall, play-wise and playbook-wise, coming in as a freshman, there are mental mistakes, but I would say I had a few missed catches. That was bad, too. I had some very bad missed catches, so I’ve been working on my hands a lot this offseason.”

WHAT WAS SAID A YEAR AGO, WHEN MAYER SIGNED
“One way or another, both Kmet and classmate Brock Wright will be gone by 2021. Takacs has the body for the in-line tight end role, but he does not offer the multiplicity in looks that Mayer could, especially with a touch more development. It should not be considered a surprise in the slightest if Mayer succeeds Kmet as the next name rattled off when discussing ‘Tight End U.’”

2021 OUTLOOK
Notre Dame’s offense will go as Mayer goes, but that does not inherently mean he will vastly improve on his 42 catches for 450 yards and two touchdowns as a freshman. With so little else proven among Irish receivers, opposing defenses may design their schemes to hem in Mayer.

“To have one guy that’s being doubled requires you to have a secondary option that can expose a defense,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in late April. “So 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.”

If a defense takes Mayer out of the game, Notre Dame can survive if other options arise. Opponents sometimes bracketed Cole Kmet in 2019, and Chase Claypool would make them pay. The Irish may not have a Claypool on the roster in 2021 — senior Kevin Austin is the obvious possibility, but don’t rule out senior Lawrence Keys, though in a slightly different role — but if they can find a viable receiver in addition to Mayer, then defenses will be punished for devoting multiple defenders to the tight end.

“If it’s Michael Mayer being doubled, we have to have some other players that can make big plays one-on-one,” Kelly said.

In that scenario, even by not producing, Mayer will help Notre Dame’s offense.

RELATED READING: Lacking ‘firepower’? Kyren Williams & Michael Mayer intent on setting the Notre Dame record straight

Of course, the Irish would rather both Mayer and other options produce. Again citing 2019, Claypool commanded enough attention from opposing secondaries to often provide Kmet breathing room. Similarly, DaVaris Daniels’ sideline work kept Tyler Eifert viable in 2012, and Michael Floyd’s 2011 dominance made Eifert even more dangerous. Speaking of Floyd, combining his presence with Golden Tate allowed Kyle Rudolph to excel as a sophomore in 2009.

Suggesting Mayer can and should exceed all those tight ends is bold in several ways. His effectiveness will depend on that arrival of an additional option. Comparing his stats to those from 12 years ago is a difficult endeavor given how offenses have changed, even if comparing to one that enjoyed a supposed decided schematic advantage back then.

But it is the correct suggestion, nonetheless. In a shortened season led by a ball-dominant run-game, Mayer caught 42 passes for 450 yards. Simply stretch that into a 13th game and that is 46 receptions for 488 yards. That alone would exceed Rudolph’s 2009 (33 catches, 364 yards, 3 scores). It would rival Kmet’s 2019 (43 catches, 515 yards, 6 scores). It would not be all that far off from Eifert’s junior season (50 catches, 685 yards, 4 scores).

And that is if Mayer does not progress at all, even when featured as Notre Dame’s lead receiving option.

The last time the Irish returned an uncertain offensive line and little proven receivers, if any, was 2018. Miles Boykin had 18 career catches heading into that season, and Notre Dame needed to replace the all-time left-side combo of Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson.

Boykin finished that year with 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns in a breakout campaign as a senior. Such a stat line would outdo even Eifert’s excellent 2011 (63 catches, 803 yards, 5 scores as a sophomore). Outright expecting that of Mayer is quite an escalation, but consider that the baseline for what will eventually be a preseason prediction.

DOWN THE ROAD
Let’s make this simple: Mayer will head to the NFL after the 2022 season. Until then, he will be the straw that stirs the drink known as the Irish offense.

ABOUT THAT HURDLING
Mayer hurdled a few defenders as a freshman to varying successes, a move that is gasp-worthy when it works but quite an endangerment otherwise. Some coaches would discourage it. To do so to Mayer, though, would not accomplish much. He doesn’t realize he is hurdling a defender until the leap has already been taken.

“I didn’t really hurdle much in high school, I started hurdling a little bit in the fall, everybody kept asking me, why did you determine to do it now, what happens, and really it’s just instinct,” he said. “I catch the ball, turn around, I wouldn’t say zone out, I remember what I do, but it’s all instinct. It’s just catching the ball, turning around and instinct takes over.”

NOTRE DAME 99-TO-0
Let’s try this again
No. 99 Rylie Mills, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 98 Alexander Ehrensberger, sophomore defensive end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, early-enrolled freshman defensive tackle the size of a Volkswagen
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, fifth-year defensive tackle-turned-end
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, sophomore defensive tackle
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, early-enrolled freshman tight end, a former high school quarterback