Notre Dame assistant coach McNulty breaks down the state of Tight End U

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees (left) and tight ends coach John McNulty walk to the field during Notre Dame football practice, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, at the Irish Athletics Center in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — John McNulty was a caddy when he stumbled into coaching 30 years ago, admitting this week he misspelled coaches’ names on cover letters and wore rumpled shirts to his job interviews.

“It was a rough look, but it was all I had,” the now polished, 53-year-old Notre Dame tight ends coach recalled this week with a chuckle. “My caddying salary.”

Fiesta Bowl Prep:What kept Notre Dame wide receiver Braden Lenzy from rerouting his dreams elsewhere

Notebook:How Notre Dame's offense is preparing for Oklahoma State's tough defense

In the two years he’s been the curator of Tight End U, the tight end group has flourished with the two most prolific seasons statistically of the 2000s for the signature position group at ND. Then again, those two years have coincided with the two seasons record-setting sophomore All-American Michael Mayer has been on campus.

“That helps,” McNulty understated. “In two years, you’ll see me with no hair, and I’ll be like, ‘Get me the hell out of here.’ Hopefully, the guys coming in and Mitch (Evans) can pick (it) up.”

Of more immediate concern is ninth-ranked Oklahoma State (11-2) and a defense that came into bowl season first nationally in both sacks and tackles for loss, second in third-down defense, third on total defense, fifth in rush defense, eighth in scoring defense and 16th in pass-efficiency defense.

No. 5 Notre Dame meets the Cowboys for the first time in football on the New Year’s Six big stage at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 1 at Glendale, Ariz., (1 p.m. EST; ESPN). The Irish held their seventh bowl practice on Tuesday, with a mini-break coming after session No. 9 on Thursday.

The team will then reconvene in Arizona on Sunday and resume bowl prep there. 

“Sometimes teams are ranked high and you watch them and you say, ‘Ok it’s the competition.’” McNulty said of the Oklahoma State defense.

“But they’re a veteran unit. They’ve played together for a couple of years. They have great leadership and they fly around and make plays and disrupt plays. And their movement is really high level.”

The Irish tight ends figure to be key in trying to break through offensively against the Cowboys.

Here’s a snapshot of the state of the tight end room, courtesy of McNulty.

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer (87) breaks a tackle during ND's 45-14 romp over Stanford, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.

The Phenom

Mayer this season broke the single-season school record for receptions by a tight end (64 for 768 yards and 5 TDs) and has a good shot and taking down the receiving yards (803) and receiving TDs marks (6) too, in the bowl game. 

With another season before he can even think about declaring for the NFL Draft, Mayer engenders few questions beyond: What’s still out there for him in terms of getting better at the college level?

“Last year, because he got here late and then with COVID, we didn’t have camp,” McNulty said. “His core strength — he was on the ground a lot. And now this year, he’s at 265. 

“I think going into it, it was the physicality and the run game. Now, that’s gone off the charts. And we watch (NFL standouts) Darren Waller and (Travis) Kelce and (George) Kittle and try to put some of those concepts in the game for him. 

“He’s at that point, where we’re watching those guys, and little things technique-wise to say, ‘Hey, this might be a better way to do it.’ So it’s trying to get incrementally better with him at a different level than everybody else. 

“Those other (tight ends) can watch it too and aspire to that, but there’s just a little more in his tank where he can work on this stuff. And he’s hungry to do it. I mean, this is his life. He’s dead focused on football. He wants to be the best tight end in the game. And he’ll do whatever that takes.” 

Irish freshman tight end Mitchell Evans runs a drill during football practice, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

The Prodigy

Irish freshman tight end Mitchell Evans threw for 2,312 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2020 primarily playing quarterback — and punting — his senior season at Wadsworth (Ohio) High School, which helps explain his three-star recruiting ranking as a tight end prospect.

“He surprised me,” McNulty said. “First of all, the first time I met him in person was the first time he walked in the door here for the spring, because we recruited him over Zoom — COVID. 

“(I had) a conversation one day with coach (Brian) Kelly about, ‘Hey, if we’re going to take a flyer on a guy, how about this guy? He's a quarterback. Catches some balls as a receiver. His hips, they’re loose. Has really good hands. Runs.’  

“So when he got here, I was like, ‘Well this guy’s going to be a year away. He had never been in a stance.’ But football-wise, he’s so savvy.

“He got down in a stance and, ‘Try this.’ He’d just do it. Then he’d do it again, and he’d do it better. But when you have a guy at Mike’s level, that’s where there’s really no sharing of the ball. Like, we’ve had a lot of plans to play him more. And then five minutes into the game, Tommy (Rees) is like, ‘Could you just get Mike out there?’ 

“But Mitch plays at a high level when he’s in the game. And the best part of his game is his receiving skills, which you really haven’t been able to see yet. So that bodes well for us down the line.” 

The Supporting Cast

At one point this season, injuries had so diluted the tight end position, tackle Michael Carmody was temporarily moved to the position.

Notre Dame Tight End Production

Mayer, meanwhile, was so dominant statistically — with 64 of the position group’s 70 receptions — senior George Takacs, sophomore Kevin Bauman and freshmen Evans and Cane Berrong when healthy had to make a case for playing time based on their blocking.

“George could start anywhere. The guy could play anywhere,” McNulty said. “He runs and catches much better than anyone. You guys see some practices — you just don’t see it in the games, because everything goes to Mike.  

“But (the other tight ends) can do a lot of the stuff that he does, at least technique-wise, on their own level. Mike’s such a good guy. He tries to help them. He tries to bring them along.

“I think it’s a great example to know this is what it’s supposed to look like, so you are constantly pushing yourself to think, ‘Can I get in that category?’ Listen, George should be a pro. Mitch should be a pro.”

Berrong played in games 4, 5 and 6 before suffering a season-ending ACL tear during a bye-week practice in mid-October. He’s expected to miss spring practice as well.

Sophomore Kevin Bauman missed seven games this season after suffering a broken fibula in the Sept. 5 season opener at Florida State. He returned to play in three November games — against Navy, Virginia and Georgia Tech — but is still not 100 percent, per McNulty.

“It’s a shame, because he’s really a high-level receiving tight end,” he said. “He’s not the fastest guy, but he’s got a knack for getting himself open. He's got really excellent hands. He can kind of body a guy up and fight for the ball. 

“At least it’s something that’s going to be fine. It just isn’t quite there yet. He’s in a lot of pain, but I give him credit, because he comes out and pushes himself every day. By the spring, he’ll be back to full bore.”

West Des Moines Valley's Eli Raridon (88), a future Notre Dame tight end, gets tackled by Ankeny's Will Cornwell during an Iowa Class 5A semifinal football game, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

The Future

The Irish signed two tight ends last week during the early period — Eli Raridon and Holden Staes. Both will be June enrollees.

Staes is a 6-foot-4, 224-pounder from the Westminster School in Atlanta. Raridon is a second-generation Irish football player with a grandfather who served as the program’s strength coach. Eli is 6-6, 225 from Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Also a standout in basketball, Raridon recently suffered a torn ACL in his right knee playing that sport. Father Scott Raridon Jr. told the Tribune that Eli underwent surgery on Tuesday and that doctors told the family Eli could be ready to play as soon as six months, depending on how rehab goes.

Even with a less ambitious timeline, he would be available for August training camp, barring a setback.

“Eli’s obviously long — he’s a huge person,” McNulty said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this guy in person, but the first time you see him, you’ll be like ‘Whoa.’ He's just a very developed big guy who’s really never lifted before, because he goes right into basketball. His hands are gigantic. 

“They’re like over 11, which is unheard of, right? He’s explosive. Everything. I mean he’s aggressive, confident.  

“And then Holden is really just getting started. He played at kind of a prep school, where there’s not a ton of Division I guys around him. (Former ND All-American Jerome) Bettis’ son is actually a freshman on that team. 

“But he, I think, is just going to continue to get better. He’s about 220 right now. He's going to get bigger, more power in his legs. But he’s explosive and competitive and long. 

“For both of them Notre Dame was — obviously, for Eli he (an infant) here. This is it. It’s like the return to the nest. And Holden always wanted to go here, even though he was committed to my alma mater (Penn State) at one point. This is what he was looking for. 

“So I think when Notre Dame resonates with guys — like Mayer said the same thing. He walked on the campus for the first time and he was like, ‘Man. I’m coming here.’”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI