How freshman tight end Michael Mayer became a first-down machine for Notre Dame

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Michael Mayer wouldn’t leave Ian Book alone.

As a freshman tight end with plans to play immediately, Mayer knew he needed to form a connection with Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. So as soon as he arrived on Notre Dame’s campus in June, Mayer started pestering Book.

“He was somebody that was begging me to go out and run routes,” Book said of Mayer. “That’s what you want as a quarterback.”

That early persistence paid off for the 6-foot-5, 249-pound Mayer. Despite a preseason mutated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayer became a part of Notre Dame’s offensive rotation. The production soon followed.

Mayer has caught a pass in each of Notre Dame’s 11 games. His 35 catches to date set a Notre Dame single-season record for receptions by a freshman tight end. With 388 receiving yards and two touchdowns, Mayer surpassed the gold standard that Kyle Rudolph established in 2008 for freshmen tight ends in South Bend (29 catches for 340 yards and two TDs).

“From the first day I met (Mayer), he’s someone that just wanted to come in and learn everything immediately,” Book said. “That’s huge. Sometimes a freshman might want to take a back seat. It wasn’t Mike. He came here. He can do everything.

“He’s just fun to be with. He cares, and care factor is everything, especially when I’m the old guy here and to see a freshman come in and just want to learn immediately.”

Anyone that followed recruiting projected Mayer as an instant-impact player for the Irish. There seemed to be little doubt that he would be physically ready to thrive at Notre Dame. Following an undefeated state-championship season at Park Hills (Ky.) Covington Catholic, in which he caught 50 passes for 970 yards and 15 touchdowns and added 99 tackles on defense, Mayer was considered one of the top tight ends in the 2020 class.

247Sports slated Mayer as a five-star prospect and the No. 2 tight end in the class. Rivals rated him as a four-star recruit and the No. 3 tight end.

“Mayer is a sure thing to be good,” 247Sports national recruiting director Steve Wiltfong said this past summer. “He’s physically ready to go. He still has upside there. He can do everything at the tight end position from playing attached to the slot, flexed and he’s got ball skills. He can make things happen after the catch. He’s tough. He’s smart.

“I don’t see how Michael Mayer is not a great player at Notre Dame.”

Once Mayer earned Book’s trust, the path was clear for him to excel. The freshman sensation hasn’t just been a reliable safety valve for Book. Mayer has become a first-down machine.

Of his 35 receptions, 27 have resulted in first downs. He’s become particularly clutch on third down. He has 14 catches on third downs and 12 of them have successfully converted the third-down attempt.

“He’s somebody I trust,” Book said. “Obviously third down has been big, but every down Mike can really win. I believe in those 50-50 matchups. I’m really confident that Mike can go up and get the job done.”

Nearly one of every six third-down conversions for Notre Dame this season has come at the hands of Mayer.

“We repped a ton of routes and a ton of catches in practice,” Mayer said. “It’s just the trust that the quarterback has in me to get the first down and run the right route and run the right amount of steps and things like that. It’s just the big-time trust he has in me.”

That trust will be important when the No. 4 Irish (10-1) try to upend No. 1 Alabama (11-0) in Friday’s College Football Playoff semifinal at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (4 p.m. EST on ESPN). The rare weaknesses for the Crimson Tide have come in stopping third-down conversions and defending the pass.

Alabama entered Wednesday ranked No. 78 in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game (243.5) and No. 70 in third-down conversion defense by allowing first downs on 40.6% percent of third downs. The passing yardage can be explained away by Alabama building big leads and forcing opponents to throw in an effort to cut into the deficit.

But the struggles on third down may be more meaningful and an area Mayer can exploit.

What has worked so well for Mayer has been a simple drag route running across the field. Whether his route is run short of the first-down marker or beyond it, he has the ability to break tackles and run away from defenders to gain extra yardage.

“In high school I never really ran that route that much,” Mayer said. “It kind of came to me when I got here. But I feel like the most important thing with that route is knowing if it’s man or zone (coverage).

“If it’s man you’re going to have someone trailing you. If it’s zone you’re going to have someone sitting there waiting to give you the big hit. It’s a matter of catching the ball first, turning your head and seeing where the person is.

“It kind of came natural to me to run after the catch with that route.”

Mayer credits tight ends coach John McNulty, who was hired by Notre Dame in March, for teaching him the nuances of the Irish playbook and understanding his responsibilities in his first year. Along the way, Mayer earned the nickname “Baby Gronk” in reference to NFL tight end Rob Gronkowski.

The nickname has been mentioned on most TV broadcasts for Notre Dame games, even if Mayer might not be the biggest fan of it. In October, Mayer captioned an Instagram photo with “Just call me Michael. #Simple.”

But Mayer understands the compliment that nickname is meant to offer. If he continues to ascend, maybe future tight ends will be called Baby Michael.

“Obviously the nickname Baby Gronk has kind of been pretty big this year,” Mayer said. “Not a bad nickname to have. Rob Gronkowski is one of the best tight ends pretty much ever.

“People around here always call me it, always joking about it and stuff. Obviously a very good nickname to have. I’m just going to keep playing football.”

Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer (87) runs after making a catch during the ACC Championship football game on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, inside Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC.
Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer puts pressure on opposing defenses as a tough tackle after catches.
Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer, right, used stiff arms and hurdles to try to stretch his receptions into first downs last season.