After breakout freshman season, tight end will play lead role in Notre Dame passing game
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Listening to Michael Mayer speak, it’s easy to forget he’s still in his freshman year at Notre Dame.
The former four-star recruit out of Covington, Kentucky, where he was the state’s Mr. Football as a two-way menace and 5A state champion, Mayer quickly picked up a classic nickname from his Irish teammates: Baby Gronk.
As in Rob Gronkowski, the NFL’s ultimate matchup nightmare at tight end. They even share the same jersey number (87).
Coming off a 42-catch debut season in which he tied for the team lead in receptions and made multiple freshman All-America teams, Mayer was asked recently how long it took him to get comfortable at the college level.
“I think the first day I stepped on campus I was comfortable,” said Mayer, held out of the Blue-Gold Game last weekend for precautionary reasons. “I met all the guys. I met Ian Book. Great guy.”
It didn’t take Book long to figure out Mayer was as reliable and dangerous a target as the senior quarterback had on what became a 10-2 team that finished No. 5 in the nation.
Taken by New Orleans in the fourth round of last weekend’s NFL Draft, Book had Mayer in his ear from June forward.
“I remember getting here and texting Ian right away and saying, ‘Let’s go throw,’ ” Mayer said. “He knew I meant business. We went and threw the whole summer.”
By the time fall camp started, there was no keeping Mayer off the field. He had three catches for 38 yards in the season opener against Duke and only got better from there.
Winning the confidence of his coaches and teammates was just a matter of being himself.
“Obviously there were some freshman nerves, learning the playbook, that type of thing,” Mayer said. “Right when I stepped on the field, started making a few plays in practice and people started noticing me, the nerves got dialed down. I knew what I could do.”
The only heart rates that spiked when Mayer’s number was called belonged to the poor souls charged with trying to defend him. Listed at 6-4½ and 249 pounds, Mayer has enough speed to shake loose out of the slot and enough hops to hurdle ill-intentioned safeties trying to take shots at his knees.
“I didn’t really hurdle much in high school,” Mayer said. “Really, it’s just instinct. I just catch the ball and turn around and I wouldn’t say I zone out — I remember what I do — but it’s all instinct. Instinct takes me over.”
Thirteen Notre Dame tight ends have been drafted into the NFL in the first or second round, most recently Cole Kmet by the Bears in 2020. Barring injury, there seems little doubt Mayer will eventually take his place alongside Ken MacAfee (1978), Dave Casper (1974), Tony Hunter (1983), Derek Brown (1992), Kyle Rudolph (2011), Tyler Eifert (2013) and the rest.
“We have a hell of a tight end we want to feature him,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees said. “There’s something to say about the way he works, the tenacity he plays with, the edge he plays with. Obviously he’s extremely talented, but there’s a reason why he’s a great player. The mentality is there.”
Mayer admittedly needs work on his blocking and he dropped a few balls last season, but the potential is staggering. The challenge for Rees will be finding ways to keep Mayer away from inevitable double-teams.
“For us it’s all about trying to isolate matchups for Mike,” Rees said. “How do we get him in a situation where we can get him one-on-one?”
Regardless of position.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Rees said. “If it’s a corner, he’s going to have a size advantage. If it’s a safety or linebacker, he’s going to have an agility advantage. We’re going to do as many things as we can to try to isolate him where they can’t help with a second player.”