Notebook: Can Notre Dame's offense be built around tight end Michael Mayer?
Tommy Rees knows what an offense looks like when its go-to receiver plays tight end.
When Rees was a junior quarterback for Notre Dame in 2012, tight end Tyler Eifert led the Irish in receiving yards (685), receiving touchdowns (4) and tied for the team high in receptions (50).
So if tight end Michael Mayer becomes Notre Dame’s best receiving option as a sophomore in 2021, the Irish offensive coordinator should know how to make that work.
“I don’t see why it should be any different in terms of being able to feature someone,” Rees said Thursday following Notre Dame’s 12th spring football practice.
Even as a freshman, Mayer wasn’t far off from being quarterback Ian Book’s preferred target. He tied wide receiver Javon McKinley for a team-high 42 receptions but for significantly fewer yards (450 to 717) and one fewer touchdown (2 to 3).
An increased role for Mayer that results in him outgaining Notre Dame’s wide receivers this season might not be a stretch, but it’s far too early to predict how his production will stack up with the rest of Notre Dame’s offense. That’s because Rees is still working to identify the identity the offense will adapt in his second season as a play caller.
What is clear, though, is that the 6-foot-5, 249-pound Mayer needs to be heavily involved.
“For us, it’s all about trying to isolate matchups for Mike,” Rees said. “How do we get him in a situation where they cannot help? Where can we get him one-on-one? It really doesn’t matter if it’s a corner, then he’s going to have a size advantage. If it’s a safety or a 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.”
With Tommy Tremble’s early entry into the NFL Draft, the Irish will need another tight end to develop if they want to utilize multiple tight ends. Senior George Takacs (6-6, 245) is making the right strides to provide that option.
“He’s a guy who’s owned that role right now,” Rees said. “He’s done a real nice job of being our Y tight end in some of our 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) packages. He’s been able to go in there as the single tight end in 11 (personnel). He’s continued to develop his passing game. In terms of being at the point of attack, he’s done a really nice job of being a lead tight end.”
The Irish are counting on sophomore Kevin Bauman (6-5, 240), who Rees described as having a steady spring with an extremely high ceiling, to also have an expanded role in 2021. Freshman tight ends Mitchell Evans (6-5, 248) and Cane Berrong (6-4, 235) are getting plenty of reps too.
“Mitchell Evans, a kid who really hasn’t played tight end, has shown some extremely raw ability to be a really good player,” Rees said. “He is a big human being that has good subtle movement skills that is able to be fluid and catch the ball and stretch the defense with his length.
“And then Cane Berrong right now if you look at what he does best, it’s getting him the slot, into some removed situations to really be a receiving tight end.
“So the group’s exciting. We’re going to continue to build in a good direction. Obviously, it’s led by Mike but we definitely have a strong group again.”
Rees said Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan and sophomore Drew Pyne have both been taking the majority of their reps with Notre Dame’s No. 1 offense as they split the work evenly.
The 6-3, 220-pound Coan has impressed Rees with his combination of arm strength and accuracy.
“The thing that’s shown up over and over is his ability to stay calm in the pocket and see things downfield, stay in there, deliver some critical throws, whether it be a third-down situation or an opportunity for a play-action shot,” Rees said. “He’s done a really nice job there.”
The 6-0, 194-pound Pyne is still working through a learning curve, but Rees said he brings an efficiency to the offense as well as a burst of energy to the quarterback unit.
“The joy to play this game is evident every time you watch Drew. He’s a steady player,” Rees said. “He understands the most important thing to do as a quarterback is to put the offense in good plays and to move the ball. That’s his strength right now. That’s something that we’re going to continue to build on. It feels like he’s a veteran, but he’s only been here a year.”
Touted freshman Tyler Buchner (6-1, 207) has shaken off the rust from not being able to play his senior high school season this past fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“His raw talent and ability has shown up,” Rees said. “His ability to make quick decisions has shown up. The ball comes out of his hand as quickly as anybody we have. He’s able to drive the ball to different areas of the field, which allows us to stretch it not only vertically but also the width.
“The added bonus there is he’s an elite athlete. There have been some opportunities to get him out in space and that’s really been exciting to watch.”
Buchner’s reps have primarily come with Notre Dame’s backups as Rees wants Buchner to use this spring as a launching pad for fall camp.
“Nobody expects you to come in spring ball right now and be a finished product,” Rees said. “We are trying to build something towards the future, and that’s where our focus has been with Tyler.”
Keys and speed
Notre Dame’s coaching staff wanted to put senior wide receiver Lawrence Keys III in position to make plays down the field this spring. He’s delivered so far.
“Lawrence Keys has probably had as good of a spring as anybody on offense,” Rees said. “He’s shown the ability to stretch the field and make explosive plays.”
Keys struggled to make an impact in eight games last season and missed time following a concussion. He totaled just five catches for 51 yards.
Rees acknowledged the need to find explosive plays in the passing game this season, but he emphasized that it doesn’t simply fall on the quarterback throwing deep. Wide receivers can make plays happen after the catch too.
Speed is required in both instances, and Rees sees that in the wide receiver group.
“We have a bunch of guys that can stretch the field, a bunch of guys that can run,” Rees said. “We can pair some of those packages together to get the ball down the field and create space with the width of the field to get them into the open field and one-on-one opportunities.”