How Notre Dame can find more production for tight end Michael Mayer following his breakout freshman season

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Michael Mayer doesn’t plan what he’s going to do after he catches the football.

But whatever was in his path as a freshman last season usually had a hard time tackling the Notre Dame tight end.

“I really just catch the ball and turn around,” said Mayer, who will complete his first round of spring football at Notre Dame following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game in Notre Dame Stadium (12:30 p.m. EDT on Peacock).

“I wouldn’t say I zone out. I remember what I did, but it’s all instinct. Catching the ball and turning around and instinct takes me over pretty much.”

The post-catch arsenal included instinctual stiff arms, hurdles and a determination to pick up more yards. That’s why Mayer was such a popular target for quarterback Ian Book last season. He finished his debut season tied with wide receiver Javon McKinley for a team-high 42 receptions.

Most of those catches — 32 to be exact — resulted in first downs. Mayer caught 16 passes on third downs and converted 14 of them into first downs. He clearly earned Book’s trust, which started the first day he arrived on campus last June, and matched the five-star expectations that 247Sports bestowed on him out of Park Hills (Ky.) Covington Catholic.

Mayer immediately wanted to start catching passes from Book and quickly adapted to his surroundings.

“It was just a matter of getting on the field and showing what I could do,” Mayer said. “Obviously there were some freshman nerves learning the playbook and that type of thing. But right when I stepped on the field and started making a few plays in practice and people started noticing me, the nerves kind of dialed down. I knew what I could do, and I was comfortable out there.”

Mayer had his share of freshman mistakes. In the November victory over then-No. 1 Clemson, Mayer sabotaged the end of two drives with a false start penalty on fourth-and-1 from the Clemson two-yard line and a dropped pass on third-and-goal that would have likely resulted in a touchdown.

Mayer’s only other drop last season came on a failed third-down conversion against North Carolina. He also made a poor decision on a fourth-and-3 catch against Syracuse in which he failed to avoid the defender rather than powering through him to pick up the first down.

But Mayer was put into so many high-leverage situations as a freshman that he was bound to make some mistakes. In preparing for an even better sophomore season, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Mayer said he doesn’t dwell too much on those past errors. He tries to keep the same mindset that he brought with him last summer.

“I was very hungry to play,” Mayer said. “I wanted to be on the field with everybody. That determination has to stay the same. I have to come in and still act like no spot is predetermined right now.”

Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees challenged Mayer to take on more of a leadership role among the tight ends and the rest of the offense. That’s how trusted Mayer is less than a year after arriving on campus and after setting a freshman record for tight end receptions at Notre Dame.

“Obviously he’s extremely talented, but there is a reason why he’s a great player,” Rees said. “The mentality is there.”

The attention of opposing defense will almost certainly follow Mayer this fall. He caught 18 more passes last season than Avery Davis, the leading returning receiver. But that attention should also give the unproven wide receivers on Notre Dame’s roster more opportunities to make plays.

“We have to make teams pay if they want to take (Mayer) out of the game,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “That’s why it’s so important that we have secondary options that if they are left in one-on-one situations, that we can come up with some big plays — flat out.

“If it’s Michael Mayer getting doubled, we have to have other players who can make big plays one-on-one. If we don’t, we’re going to struggle.”

There’s room for Mayer to make more big plays too. He averaged 10.7 yards per catch last season, which was only higher than running back Kyren Williams’ 8.9 yards per catch among the team’s top six pass catchers. Mayer only caught two touchdowns passes and neither of them came in the last seven games of the season.

When asked if a tight end could be the go-to target in his offense, Rees pointed to his 2012 season as quarterback for the Irish when Tyler Eifert caught 50 passes for 685 yards and four touchdowns. That wasn’t Notre Dame’s most explosive offense either, and Eifert still averaged three more yards per catch than Mayer did last season.

Mayer being compared to Eifert, who won the Mackey Award as the country’s top tight end in 2012, in any way speaks to how high the expectations are for him.

“We’re going to challenge him in terms of what we’re going to ask him to do,” Rees said. “He’s going to be in different spots than he was in the past. It’s all about finding ways to isolate Mike in terms of how we get him involved in the passing game. So we’re going to ask him to do some different things.

“We’re moving around quite a bit, and that’s all new for Mike. That’s stuff that he’s eager to do and hungry to attack.”

That attitude might sound familiar to opposing defensive backs.

“If it so happens to be I’m the No. 1 target this year, it’s going to happen,” Mayer said. “...That’s not going to be my set goal for the year. I’m not going to tell myself, ‘Oh, I need to be the No. 1 target-getter this season.’ It’s just a matter of doing what the coaches want me to do, doing what I need to work on and letting the game speak for itself.”

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer, right, used stiff arms and hurdles to try to stretch his receptions into first downs last season.