Notre Dame football: TE Michael Mayer not thinking NFL, even if everyone else is
SOUTH BEND – Spend time with arguably the top tight end in the nation and you quickly lose track of how often you have to remind yourself that the kid is still in college.
Four? Five? Six times over the course of a 15-minute sit-down interview? Sounds about right when interacting with Notre Dame junior Michael Mayer.
He's yet to play a third season, but Mayer already handles himself like a 13-year professional. In the way he approaches every single day, every single moment, every single interview, anything that has to do with him or his game or his place in a storied program that has seen its share of pass-catching, do-everything guys at his position.
There is maturity, and then there is Mayer. There is self-awareness, and then there is Mayer. There is confidence, and then, yep, Mayer.
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Thursday marked the last scheduled day of interviews during spring practice for various Irish and their respective position coaches. As the schedule set it, tight ends were the last group to tackle their media obligations this month. Running back and wide receivers had talked, linebackers and cornerbacks too. Even the specialists had a say.
Finally, it was tight ends.
Mayer was the first player to stalk up the steps to the second floor of the Irish Athletic Facility. The media may have felt a lot like an undersized linebacker or the overmatched safety seeing the 6-foot-4 1/2, 262-pound Mayer approaching.
Nope, not getting in front of that.
Mayer then sat and answered every question so matter-of-factly, so effortlessly. No umms. No uhhhhs. No likes. No hesitation. In other words, he talks like he plays, like he practices. Nothing less than an all-out effort all the time.
He’s always on. Always at 100. And this guy’s still in college? Yep, but not for long.
“You have to be careful about praise because it’s a scary thing,” said first-year tight ends coach Gerad Parker, still getting to know Mayer, yet liking a whole lot of what he’s already seen. “But the fact is, he’s the epitome of a pro. Really couldn’t say enough good things about where he is.”
Parker will say plenty good about Mayer, who’s hesitant to do the same about himself. Heading into the 2022 season, there’s no more Jack Coan, the steady veteran at quarterback. There’s no more Kyren Williams, the game-breaking running back. There’s no more Kevin Austin, who could take the proverbial top off the defense at any moment at wide receiver.
When you talk up the Irish offense, at least, the knowns of the Irish offense in April, everything starts with No. 87. He’s good. He's really good. You’d never know it talking with a guy destined to be a first-round NFL draft pick next April.
“Nothing changes for me,” Mayer almost barked when asked about his role in 2022. “Nothing changes. I compete the same way. At the end of the day, football’s football. I approach the game the same. I would approach the game the same way if I was a third-string tight end than the main guy.”
So, nothing changes?
“Probably get the ball a little bit more,” Mayer said with a smile, “which I don’t mind at all.”
Make that get the ball a lot more, especially this season as the Irish sort through their quarterback options – Tyler Buchner or Drew Pyne – and figure out exactly who else might be in the play-making/game-breaking group. No matter the quarterback, no matter the playmakers, expect a heavy dose of Mayer as he plays here and there and everywhere this season.
There’s Mayer lined up in a traditional tight end set. There he is split out wide. Next play, even wider, like a receiver. Maybe even sneaking out of the backfield. That’s how Mayer expects – wants – to be utilized this season in coordinator Tommy Rees’s offense. The former Irish quarterback certainly will oblige.
Might as well use him while you can, as much as you can. Wherever and whenever, too.
“I don’t know what you want me to say about Mike,” Rees said recently. “He’s as special a kid as we’ve had.”
Rees continued, saying that he’s been part of the program – first as a player, then as a coach – for 10 years. Along that decade, he insisted he could count on one hand the number of players as special as Mayer. Not only for what they do on the football field, but the way they are off it as people. Rees classified that as the “upper, upper, upper echelon group” which runs no more than five deep.
“He’s in there,” Rees said.
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Already in select company
Who else is in there? Rees didn’t expand and wasn’t asked, but you have to figure he’s got Mayer grouped with former Irish offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, former linebacker Manti Te’o and former safety Kyle Hamilton. Mayer’s the latest of those greatest.
“That kid wants to be great every day,” Rees said. “He’s not secret about it.”
Greatness, at least this spring, had to wait. It was as common to see Mayer standing and watching a certain drill or a certain period of practice. For a guy who needs to be on the field a whole lot this fall, he didn’t need to be this spring. If that meant more reps for backups Kevin Bauman and Mitchell Evans, Mayer was OK with it.
Yeah, he wanted to take every rep, run every route, catch every pass, get as much work as possible in, but he understands the bigger picture. It’s important for him to do all that in September and October and November, not so much in March and April.
“Every coach in this building every time we practice knows what I can do,” Mayer said. “They’ve seen me do it. I know what I can do. If I have to sit out a little bit, it’s to stay healthy for the season. The season’s the No. 1 priority.”
The No. 1 priority for the No. 1 priority on offense. Heck, maybe on this team. As Mayer sat and talked with the media like they were all old friends huddled around a restaurant table somewhere back in his hometown of Independence, Kentucky, he said something that likely sent shockwaves from Central Ohio to South Carolina and out to Southern California.
“I,” Mayer said, “have way more confidence in myself.”
Safeties from Ohio State to Clemson to USC and every team/game in between likely shuddered for reasons they can’t explain. Mayer was a handful to deal with last season, when he caught a team-high 71 passes for 840 yards and seven touchdowns. He may be even more of one this season.
Working with Parker has allowed Mayer to smooth the rougher edges of his game, like how to better use his hands and shed double teams and run even crisper routes. Where he might have just played the game his first two years – when he caught 113 passes for 1,290 yards and nine touchdowns – Mayer's ready to think it more in 2022. He may’ve had limited reps in the spring – take this period off, Mike, we know what we can do – but that doesn’t mean he didn’t maximize those limited looks.
“This spring has been fantastic,” he said. “My game and my route running has gotten tremendously better.”
Summer offers Mayer the opportunity to improve even more as the next in a long line of really good Irish tight ends. He's spoken with many who came before him – from Tyler Eifert to Kyle Rudolph, Cole Kmet to Tommy Tremble. Anything Mayer needs – someone to run routes with, someone to talk with – he can get from guys who’ve come before him.
“They’ve been awesome,” he said.
Come fall, his last on campus, it will be all about the season. It won’t be about making a run at the Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end or securing a spot inside the NFL draft’s Top 10. All that stuff will be there down the line. What matters most for Mayer will be this season, this team, this opportunity to make the most of everything. One last run.
“I’m focused on my junior year; I’m focused on winning a natty,” he said. “I’m focused on getting everyone else on the team better and playing my best ball. That’s what I’m worried about right now.
“I’m not worried about anything else.”
With his interview window closed, Mayer thanked the reporters at his table, got up, walked down the sets of stairs and walked out of the IAC. Another day down for a kid with a perspective far beyond those 21 years.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI