Tommy Rees would know. He played with Tyler Eifert and was best friends with Zack Martin. His first year back at Notre Dame overlapped with Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey’s last season along the Irish offensive line. He just watched Kyle Hamilton for three seasons.
So when discussing the best Notre Dame players of recent years, the Irish offensive coordinator has the comparison points needed for his praise of rising junior tight end Michael Mayer to be taken seriously and not as hyperbole.
“He’s as special a kid as we’ve had,” Rees said last week. “I’ve been a part of the program for 10 years, and there’s a certain upper, upper, upper echelon of players that’s probably five-deep, and he’s in there.
“That kid wants to be great every day, and he’s not secret about it.”
That may be the only reason Mayer still receives coaching, because after setting the Notre Dame season record for touchdown catches by a tight end and leading the Irish in receptions in 2021 by 23 catches, there is not much for Mayer to improve on. Seven touchdowns, 71 catches and 840 yards is about as strong a season from a tight end as one can expect.
Yet, Notre Dame and Mayer expect more in 2022.
“Definitely going to get the ball some more, rather than last year and freshman year, which is fantastic for me,” Mayer said Thursday.
As absurd as that may seem, it is not only a reflection of the limited Irish receivers. New tight ends coach Gerad Parker has not shied from challenging his star pupil to improve on the details. Mayer knows he has put together two impressive seasons at Notre Dame. Rees knows it, too. Anyone who has watched or tried to defend Mayer knows it.
Parker sees chances for betterment.
“Coming into this spring ball, I was like, ‘I feel like I had a pretty successful season last year,” Mayer said. “Got right into the tape with coach Parker and right away he was like, ‘This is what you’re doing wrong. This is what you need to change.’
“I was like, ‘Dang coach, I thought I had a pretty good season,’ but that’s the type of thing I like about him.”
Mayer pointed specifically to his route running. While he has never been particularly slow or sloppy getting into and out of his cuts, Parker identified some inexact depths to his routes. If Mayer was supposed to cut at 10 yards, he sometimes cut at nine yards. The intended distances exist for a reason, looking to put defenders in the exact worst positions.
“An extra two steps, an extra one step, an extra three steps, that can be the difference between another 10 yards, another 15 yards (after the catch),” Mayer said. “Sometimes I’m running routes, I’m eager to get the ball. Just relax, get through the route, get to the depth, get the extra 5-10 yards. If I can take it, I’ll take it.”
That could easily be the difference between another 800-yard season for Mayer and the first 1,000-yard season by an Irish pass-catcher since Chase Claypool in 2019 and by a Notre Dame tight end … ever? Looking through the record books, that certainly feels like an unexplored territory, given Eifert topped out at 803 yards in 2011, Kyle Rudolph barely broke 1,000 yards in his entire career and Cole Kmet had only 515 receiving yards in 2019. Mayer is only 27 receptions behind Eifert’s career record for catches by an Irish tight end at 140. He could conceivably end up second in Notre Dame history in receptions, trailing only Michael Floyd’s 271.
Hence, Rees’ hefty praise, though it also came with a challenge for off-field improvement, a challenge Parker has embraced, as well. Mayer’s on-field talent has been apparent since he arrived in South Bend. At the end of the month, some NFL draft chatter will include the acknowledgments that Mayer would have been no worse than a second-round pick after his freshman season, and he will assuredly be a top-15 pick in the earliest 2023 mock drafts.
But on-field talent is not enough when you are clearly the best player on the team.
“Challenging him off the field or in a non-physical role has been his leadership role here with the football team offensively and then in the tight end room,” Parker said. “He’s accepted that. He knows he needs to become not only a guy that leads by example, but he leads verbally, and he’s really taken a step in that.”
Mayer has never been particularly quiet. Every moment he has spent speaking with the media has been rife with blunt and in-depth answers, but there is a difference between answering questions and proactively seeking out teammates. Frankly, Mayer is supposed to answer questions when he is speaking with the media.
“There’s that saying, lead by example, but I kind of hate that saying,” Mayer said, “because if I’m leading by example, I’m just doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
“My mindset coming into this spring, coming into lifts, coming into meetings, be way more vocal with not just the tight ends, but the entire offense and also the entire team. That’s kind of been on the forefront of what I need.”
That aspect would solidify Mayer’s status in Rees’ top five, especially considering those five names offered — to be clear, not by Rees, but by this writer and in no particular order — were all captains in their final Irish seasons.