Michael Mayer, Notre Dame hold on in Las Vegas amid second-half BYU surge


LAS VEGAS — When Notre Dame revealed its white-and-gold uniforms back in July for Saturday’s Shamrock Series against BYU, “All-American tight end fell down” was the first mention of Michael Mayer, courtesy of former Irish offensive lineman Mike Golic Jr. doing his best Zach Galifianakis impersonation. Officially wearing that uniform this weekend, Mayer did anything but fall down in Notre Dame’s 28-20 victory against the No. 16 Cougars.

He did, however, firmly establish his All-American candidacy while breaking some Irish records.

At first, Notre Dame (3-2) leaned on Mayer to convert third downs, moving the chains on five separate third downs by the end of the game. Then, the Irish sought him out in the end zone, junior quarterback Drew Pyne twice connecting with his favorite target for scores.

For precision’s sake, it should be acknowledged Mayer fell to the grass on both of his touchdown catches, but obviously at that point, he had inflicted the necessary damage on BYU (4-2).

“We knew BYU was going to be a tough team,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. “I told them at halftime (leading 18-6), this team wasn’t going to quit. I challenged our guys, we have to match their intensity.”

Mayer broke his own school record for catches in a game by a tight end, 11 exceeding a mark of nine he had previously reached twice. He set the program record for catches by a tight end in a career. And he provided the consistency needed even when the Cougars defensive front stopped Notre Dame in its tracks.

Yet he did not have the best catch of the game. That came from sophomore receiver Jayden Thomas on his first career touchdown catch, climbing up and above a BYU defender to pull in the 30-yard score.

“JT has worked really hard,” Pyne said after throwing for 262 yards and three scores on 22-of-28 passing. “He has all summer, he did in the spring. He deserves that. Just like [sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles] did last week with the post, Jayden Thomas went up there and made a play. I underthrew it and he went up there and made an unbelievable play. I’m so proud of him. We’re going to need him to keep doing what he’s doing. He’s going to be a big role for us in the future.”

Thomas finished with three catches on three targets for 74 yards, while Styles caught all three passes thrown to him for 39 yards. Most of Pyne’s incompletions, in fact, went toward Mayer, completing 11 passes on 15 targets for 118 yards.

Despite that efficiency, a second-half surge from the Cougars put the game very much in doubt deep into the fourth quarter. Notre Dame had stymied BYU throughout the first half, to the tune of 67 total yards and 3.2 yards per play. But the Cougars’ first drive after halftime gained 75 yards, punctuated by a 53-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Kody Epps, his second of the evening. Their next drive scored, as well. Those two drives, along with the corresponding Irish failures, were the only sustained moments of success for BYU, analytically speaking.

Veteran BYU quarterback Jaren Hall struggled in the first half, showing signs of a shoulder worry, before opening the second half by leading those two touchdown drives. Hall said the shoulder bothered him earlier in the week but insisted it was fine on Saturday. Even with that shoulder nonetheless seemingly affecting his throws early, Hall made only two mistakes, both very costly.

On his very first pass attempt, the very first play from scrimmage, he underthrew his target by at least five yards, allowing Irish fifth-year cornerback Tariq Bracy the time and space to settle under the pass like an outfielder under a lazy fly ball. Notre Dame turned that gift into a field goal.

“First play of the game, throw an interception, that’s on the quarterback,” Hall said after finishing with just 120 yards on 9-of-17 passing. “That’s on me. … All of that stuff is on me, the quarterback, with the ball in my hands.”

Toward the end of the first half, Hall was sacked in the end zone by Irish senior linebacker Jack Kiser, failing to get rid of the ball when his first read was not open on a play-action pass in dangerous territory. Along with missing a point after attempt following Epps’ first touchdown, those points very much decided the game. Flip those six points appropriately and the Cougars would have been trailing by one late in the fourth quarter when they were in field-goal range. They could have taken the lead then rather than be stuffed by fifth-year defensive tackle Jayson Admeilola and senior defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah on a fourth-and-one.

Instead, Mayer’s heroics were enough, his 11 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns even more impressive than his July film turn.

Freeman found words to describe Mayer, the superlatives that are not rote when they apply to a player this dominant, and then he unveiled a scary thought for Notre Dame’s seven remaining opponents.

“[Tight ends coach Gerad] Parker and [offensive coordinator Tommy] Rees have done a great job of still developing Mike,” Freeman said. “He’s not a finished product. That’s tough to say for the guy that holds probably every record at Notre Dame for tight ends. He wants to be pushed. That’s the thing about Michael Mayer. He’s one of those great ones that don’t want to be told what he does well. Tell me how to improve. That’s what makes him special.”

Mayer does not yet hold every record, but he should soon. Last season he set every tight-end-specific receiving record with 71 catches for 840 yards and seven touchdowns. His career totals, including Saturday, of 146 catches for 1,641 yards and 14 touchdowns are a record (set Saturday), 199 yards short of Tyler Eifert‘s mark and one touchdown short of Ken MacAfee’s, respectively.

His 11 catches in Allegiant Stadium set a new program mark, and his two touchdowns can unofficially be considered a new program mark. There may be only one tight-ends record at Notre Dame outside of Mayer’s grasp, and that is Kyle Rudolph’s single-game yards mark of 164, set when he galloped 95 yards for a game-winning touchdown against Michigan in 2010.

Mayer did not know he was on the verge of breaking Eifert’s receptions mark, but when it was announced to the stadium with the video board showing him, Eifert acknowledged the crowd in a unique moment not usually seen during a game.

“I went back, sat on the bench, saw me up on the screen, and I heard they kind of announced it,” Mayer said. “Very grateful. I’ve been around a ton of good football coaches, a ton of good football players that have gotten me to this point, starting in fifth grade, really. I’m just very grateful. Tremendous people here at the University of Notre Dame have gotten me to this point, and I’m grateful.”

It does not seem bold to think there is a good chance Mayer breaks that career yards mark on Oct. 22 against UNLV at Notre Dame Stadium, at which point another home crowd can give him that recognition. For that matter, two more touchdown catches will create another such opportunity.

As BYU made things interesting in the second half, jeopardizing the lede of this story that would only ever be applicable tonight, it still never took control of the game.

If a possession is graded as quality for either scoring or getting a first down within the 40-yard line (at which point, it is more likely you will score than not), then eight of Notre Dame’s 10 possessions were quality, while only three of the Cougars’ 10 possessions were.

Look at it this way, the Irish controlled 75.0 percent of the possessions in this game.

Editor’s Note: This statistic was originally incorrectly calculated. The 75 percent now published is the accurate figure. The mistake came from overlooking that Notre Dame’s sole turnover came within BYU’s 40-yard line, making that a quality possession for these purposes. The Irish were likely to score when they made that mistake, and the metric here is, is a team likely to score?

First Quarter
11:25 — Notre Dame field goal. Blake Grupe 26 yards. Notre Dame 3, BYU 0. (8 plays, 36 yards, 3:26)
4:32 — BYU touchdown. Kody Epps 2-yard pass from Jaren Hall. Justen Smith PAT missed. BYU 6, Notre Dame 3. (7 plays, 26 yards, 3:49)

Second Quarter
14:19 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 24-yard pass from Drew Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 10, BYU 6. (10 plays, 75 yards, 5:13)
6:50 — Notre Dame safety. Jack Kiser sacks Jaren Hall. Notre Dame 12, BYU 6.
1:03 — Notre Dame touchdown. Jayden Thomas 30-yard pass from Pyne. 2-point conversion no good. Notre Dame 18, BYU 6. (10 plays, 79 yards, 5:42)

Third Quarter
8:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Mayer 19-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 25, BYU 6. (11 plays, 75 yards, 6:55)
5:27 — BYU touchdown. Epps 53-yard pass from Hall. Smith PAT good. Notre Dame 25, BYU 13. (5 plays, 75 yards, 2:38)

Fourth Quarter
14:18 — BYU touchdown. Chris Brooks 28-yard rush. Smith PAT good. Notre Dame 25, BYU 20. (10 plays, 87 yards, 4:41)
6:07 — Notre Dame field goal. Grupe 20 yards. Notre Dame 28, BYU 20. (8 plays, 62 yards, 4:47)

Georgia OL prospect the first commit for new Notre Dame OL coach Joe Rudolph


New Notre Dame offensive line coach Joe Rudolph pulled in his first recruit by continuing to chase a prospect he initially wanted at his last job. Three-star offensive lineman Anthonie Knapp (Roswell High School; Ga.) committed to the Irish on Wednesday afternoon, picking Notre Dame over Rudolph’s former employer, Virginia Tech, as well as Georgia Tech and North Carolina.

In total, more than half the ACC offered Knapp a scholarship. The Irish offer came only this past weekend with Knapp in South Bend catching up with Rudolph, who was the first Power Five coach to offer a scholarship to Knapp back at Virginia Tech.

“The hospitality and the heritage it kept made the school stand out,” Knapp said to Inside ND Sports in a text message.

At 6-foot-5 and less than 270 pounds, Knapp will need to put on weight at the next level, though that can be said of most high school juniors. He played left tackle last season, but unless the weight piles on quickly and consistently, Knapp will most likely play guard at the next level.

His footwork already looks more fundamentally sound than most high schoolers display, all the more impressive because Knapp could simply rely on overpowering his opponents as most offensive line prospects understandably tend to do. Knapp is content to use his length and footwork to let a pass rusher charge upfield, well past the quarterback.

Strength and mass will come with age and entering a collegiate conditioning program, and Knapp needs both of those, but length is uncoachable and footwork fundamentals hold up early careers as often as lack of strength does.

He is the second offensive lineman in the class, joining four-star offensive guard Peter Jones, also a preps tackle that is expected to move inside in college.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame’s biggest offensive progressions this spring will be smallest to spot from afar

Getty Images

When Marcus Freeman was first hired as Notre Dame’s head coach in December of 2021, it was widely expected he would retain three-fifths of his offensive coaching staff. Instead, promotions elsewhere awaited two of those coaches, leaving only Tommy Rees as a constant.

Then Rees and one-year returnee Harry Hiestand departed this offseason, meaning Freeman’s entire offensive coaching staff turned over — and the offensive line coach twice — within 15 months of that supposedly being a piece of stability he could lean on as a young first-time head coach. Yet, one thing has not changed about Freeman’s relationship with the offensive coaches: He is trying to stay out of their way.

“Most of the [newcomers] are on the offensive side of the ball, so really I just try to stay out of the way and let those guys meet,” Freeman said last week at the start of the Irish spring practices. “Give them time to be together. They’ve been together a lot and met a lot and really, you have to meet to get everybody on the same page. A lot of that is cohesion, that ability to view these guys as teammates.

“… I’ve been in there a bit, and then we have our staff meetings to make sure everybody understands our culture, understands our expectations. It’s not where it’s a finished product, but it’s definitely progressing to where we want to see it.”

A year ago, the cohesion Freeman was most worried about on the offensive side of the ball was between Rees and a pair of inexperienced quarterbacks. Now, it’s the collaboration between an offensive coordinator, a quarterbacks coach and an offensive line coach who had never worked together before a month or two ago. Freeman, of course, knew offensive coordinator Gerad Parker for more than a decade, quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli for seven years and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph since Freeman’s playing days at Ohio State beginning in 2004.

That has been a common theme in Freeman’s hires, tying to former Notre Dame special teams coach Brian Mason, current cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and defensive line coach Al Washington.

“There’s nothing more important than experience with somebody,” Freeman said. “I don’t have to wonder what this person is like when I’m not around. … When I can find a quality coach that I know can be the best at his profession, but also I have personal experience with them — I’m not saying we’re friends, but we’ve worked together. Coach Rudolph was at Ohio State when I was a player, but I knew what type of person he was.”

That is the commonality between those three new offensive hires, though a few pieces of similar backgrounds can be found between Parker and Guidugli. At 42 and 40, respectively, they both grew up in the Ohio River Valley and played college football along the same Kentucky-Ohio Interstate corridor. Parker then went straight into coaching while Guidugli knocked around the Canadian Football League and various iterations of short-lived secondary leagues in the United States until he went into coaching in 2010.

At the least, though, their formative years should have shared enough to lay a foundation now, the foundation upon which Freeman is counting on them to build an offense. That progression may be as important as any other made on the offensive side of the ball this spring.

After just one practice, Freeman saw value in a quarterbacks coach who can somewhat ignore the rest of the offense. Rees’s focus was assuredly on the quarterbacks, but Sam Hartman, Tyler Buchner & Co. are quite literally all Guidugli needs to concern himself with each day.

“When you take some of that responsibility off their plate, and it’s just coach the quarterbacks and see if they made the right decision because there’s so much that falls on [the quarterback’s] plate that isn’t really his fault,” Freeman said. “I know he gets the praise and he gets the criticism, but my biggest thing, did you make the right decision? That’s so important at the quarterback position.”

Parker thinks there may be more to the gig than the right decision. Wake Forest graduate transfer Sam Hartman should have little trouble with any intangibles of acclimating to a new campus and a new roster, even if he did not have to run many huddles with the Demon Deacons, but there will be one tangible shift to his quarterback play that Hartman might need to work on.

“Just in its simplest form, just taking snaps under center,” Parker said this weekend. “As simple as that. Just being able to secure a football under center.”

Parker wants to emphasize that because even as Notre Dame presumably opens up its offense a bit more with a deeper receivers room chasing passes from a stronger-armed quarterback, the Irish offense will still hinge on its veteran offensive line and trio of proven running backs.

Finding that balance can come in August. For now, finding that snap will be Hartman’s focus while Parker, Guidugli, Rudolph and a litany of offensive analysts strive to learn the same shorthand.

Sam Hartman’s practice debut features Notre Dame veteran Chris Tyree move to receiver, at least for now
Thomas’ leadership, freshmen arrivals already improve Notre Dame’s receivers room
Dynamic incoming freshman safety Brandyn Hillman exits Notre Dame before enrolling

Here’s the actually interesting thing about that Notre Dame NYT op-ed
Notre Dame AD says NCAA could break apart without stronger NIL guidelines
Ryan Bischel, Trevor Janicke will return next season for Notre Dame hockey
2023 NFL draft Big Board: PFF’s Top 150 prospects
Bears tight end Cole Kmet fulfills promise, returns to Notre Dame for degree
Increase in countable coaches rule reportedly unlikely to pass
Timing rules changes proposed in football
Men outnumber women at Notre Dame for the past 20 years, University denies gender quota
1 in 4 prospective students ruled out colleges due to their states’ political climates

Thomas’ leadership, freshmen arrivals already improve Notre Dame’s receivers room

Notre Dame v North Carolina
Getty Images

As much criticism as Drew Pyne and Tommy Rees received for Notre Dame’s ground-bound offense last season, much of that approach was due to a reality beyond their control. The former Irish quarterback and offensive coordinator could not run the routes or catch the passes.

Notre Dame had few who could run the routes and among them, it seemed even fewer who could catch Pyne’s passes. Thus, the Irish threw for fewer than 200 yards in six games, not even reaching triple digits in the 35-14 upset of Clemson to start November. They threw 21 or fewer passes four times; raise that to 26 pass attempts and three more games qualify.

Of Notre Dame’s 192 completed passes in the regular season, 35 percent of them landed in the hands of tight end Michael Mayer. Another 22 percent found running backs. Six Irish receivers combined to catch 94 passes for 1,306 yards total last year. Seven receivers across the country caught 94 or more passes on their own in 2022, and three topped that yardage tally.

There simply were not ample options among the receivers for Rees to draw up plays with Pyne targeting them, particularly not after Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins were injured in the preseason, Deion Colzie was hampered in the preseason and Tobias Merriweather’s season would be cut short by a concussion.

The Irish moving running back Chris Tyree to at least a part-time role at receiver this spring will help solve that dearth but not nearly as much as the arrivals of Virginia Tech transfer Kaleb Smith and a trio of early-enrolled freshmen will. With them, Notre Dame has nine receivers on hand this spring, though who exactly leads them is a vague wonder.

Smith has the most collegiate experience with 74 career catches, and his size should place him into the starting lineup, but he is just as new in South Bend as early enrollees Rico Flores, Jaden Greathouse and Braylon James all are. Of the three rising juniors on the roster, each had a moment or two of note last season, but Jayden Thomas’s may have been the most consistent, finishing with 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns.

“That’s the challenge I’ve had for that entire room,” Freeman said of finding a leader in the position group. “Guys that have been here. … I hope Jayden Thomas continues to excel on the field and then in his leadership roles.

“What he’s done in the weight room, I think he’s matured and said, okay, I can play at a higher level when I take care of my body or I’m at a weight I feel really comfortable at.”

Those were mostly generic platitudes, but Thomas’s 2022 stats alone are impressive enough to garner a leading role when dug into a bit. Of his 25 catches, 18 of them gained a first down. Of those 18, eight of them came on third down and another two were on second-and-long. If Notre Dame needed a chunk gain and Mayer was covered, Thomas was the most likely outlet.

That should give him pole position to be the boundary starter heading into 2023, with Colzie and/or Merriweather pressing him forward. Smith’s experience and size should pencil him in as the field starter, leaving the slot the question on the first unit for the next 14 spring practices.

Tyree could emerge there, but he is more likely to be a utility knife type of option, concealing any offensive alignment until the snap. Instead, rising junior Lorenzo Styles may get a chance at the slot. He has the tools if he has the focus.

Styles dropped six passes last season, more than anyone else on the roster and a bothersome number regardless of his final stats, but one that stands out in particular when realizing he caught only 30 passes for 340 yards and a score.

“It became I think mental last year,” Freeman said Wednesday. “Lorenzo Styles is a talented, talented football player, really talented. With him last year, it almost became a mental struggle, even just the basics of catching the ball.”

Last year, those mental struggles were enough to somewhat undo Notre Dame’s offense, because the Irish had no choice but to play Styles through his missteps. Now, whether it be injury or some headspace frustrations that Chuck Knoblauch could relate to, the Irish have some depth at receiver if needed. As the season progresses, that depth will become only stronger with the freshmen rounding into form.

“The young wideouts caught a couple balls, and it’s going to be good to see the progression of all those freshmen,” Freeman said. “They’re all going to be in different places on the road. That’s what I spend a lot of time talking to our team about, we’re all freshmen, you can’t compare your journey to this guy’s journey.”

Wherever those journeys are, they are welcome additions to Notre Dame’s offense. As much as newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gerad Parker will relish the luxury that is veteran quarterback Sam Hartman, simply having options on the perimeter for Hartman to look for should be an Irish improvement.

Sam Hartman’s practice debut features Notre Dame veteran Chris Tyree move to receiver, at least for now

Getty Images

Marcus Freeman’s second spring as Notre Dame’s head coach has begun. As he pointed out Wednesday, it is quarterback transfer Sam Hartman’s sixth spring practice. Both are still looking around a bit for their proper cues, though Hartman’s hesitance now should be short-lived.

“He’s like a freshman, it’s new,” Freeman said. “I was joking with him, this is his sixth spring ball, but you’re at a new place, a new system, still figuring out where to go, what a drill is called, so you can see him at times just trying to say, ‘Okay, where are we going, what’s the drill, what are we doing, how many plays?’

“But he’s got some natural ability when he throws the ball and when he plays the game of football. You’ll see the leadership traits that he possesses grow because I know he has them. He’s a leader the first time you meet him. You can tell that he really commands respect.”

Freeman mentioned a “quarterback competition” between Hartman and rising junior Tyler Buchner only once, something that will reoccur throughout the next month, though more in name than in reality. Whoever takes the lead at quarterback, and it will be Hartman, will have a new target to get comfortable with in rising senior Chris Tyree.

Tyree spent the first spring practice working at receiver after lining up at running back the vast majority of the last three years. Freeman would not commit to that being a full-time shift for Tyree, but given the Irish depth at running back — led by rising juniors Audric Estimé and Logan Diggs, with rising sophomore Gi’Bran Payne the next in line for the spring while classmate Jadarian Price continues to “progress” from a torn Achilles last summer — Tyree working at receiver for the long-term should make some sense.

“He’s a guy that has multiple skill sets, and we know Chris Tyree is a guy we have to have on the football field,” Freeman said. “The ability to put him at wideout, we know what he can do as a running back, to really be a guy that can do multiple different things.”

Tyree took 100 rushes for 444 yards and three touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 138 yards and two more scores last year. The ball-carrying was a step forward compared to his previous seasons, but he caught 24 passes for 258 yards in 2021. In three games in 2022, Tyree gained more than 20 yards through the air. He was one of the more reliable pass-catchers on Notre Dame’s roster last season, finishing tied for fourth in receptions, one behind Jayden Thomas’s 25 catches and just six behind Lorenzo Styles, the leading returning receiver.

“You’re seeing more of that in college football and in the NFL,” Freeman said. “Guys that can play multiple different skill positions on offense, so do you treat him as a running back, do you treat him as a wideout? That’s what we have to do, and gain confidence in the quarterbacks in him as a wide receiver.”

Tyree’s shift was the most notable on the field on the first day of spring practices, but a handful of absences also stood out.

Junior linebacker Will Schweitzer, junior safety Justin Walters and junior quarterback Ron Powlus III have taken medical retirements, while junior cornerback Philip Riley, junior offensive lineman Caleb Johnson and junior kicker Josh Bryan are all no longer with the program, presumably each pursuing a transfer following this semester.

With those departures, Notre Dame’s roster now has 87 players on scholarship, two more than the NCAA maximum allowed when the season starts.

In hiring Marty Biagi from Mississippi, Freeman strayed from his usual habit of hiring coaches he has previous experience with. He did, however, have some mutual connections to reach out to about Biagi.

“I remember when we were playing Purdue when I was defensive coordinator (at Notre Dame in 2021), I was sitting in a special teams meeting, and they did some unique things on special teams.

“I still know some people back in West Lafayette from my time there, and he does, too. Somehow his name got brought up, so I was interested in interviewing him last year before I hired [former Irish special teams coordinator Brian Mason]. I didn’t know [Biagi] personally, but I had talked to him before, I knew enough about him. It’s important because you need to know when you’re not around, you can trust those guys that you’re working with.”

Defensive backs Cam Hart and Thomas Harper will both be held out of contact for at least the near future as they recover from winter shoulder surgeries, while early-enrolled defensive lineman Devan Houstan Will Likely miss all springtime work due to his own recent shoulder surgery.

Tight ends Eli Raridon and Kevin Bauman will not take part this spring due to ACL injuries in the fall.

Freeman expressed some optimism about Price’s timeline, but even that was measured.

“I don’t know if he will be full go, but he has done a lot of running and I see him progressing to more and more actual football practice.”

Given Price is still less than a calendar year from a ruptured Achilles, it is most likely he is limited well into the summer.