Notre Dame TE Michael Mayer forges bond with Kyle Rudolph ... while breaking his records

Greg McKenna
Correspondent
Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph scores a touchdown against Michigan at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 11, 2010.

TAMPA — Notre Dame has earned the reputation as a tight end factory for the NFL over the past half century. None of those products have earned more respect at the next level than Kyle Rudolph.

The 2011 second-round pick amassed almost 4,500 receiving yards and 48 touchdowns in 10 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. Things didn’t click last year with the New York Giants, but that didn't stop Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady from recruiting the two-time Pro Bowler even before the Buccaneers knew they needed to replace the now retired Rob Gronkowski.

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Rudolph became the first Notre Dame freshman to start a season opener at tight end in 2008, but many of his other collegiate accolades have already been surpassed by junior Michael Mayer, who Rudolph has known since Mayer’s high school days at Covington Catholic in northern Kentucky.

“Obviously, he's the most talented tight end in the country, probably for the second year in a row,” Rudolph said recently at Buccaneers training camp, “(I'm) always excited to watch him play.”

Mayer and the fifth-ranked Irish will open the 2022 season Saturday, Sept. 3 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus against No. 2 Ohio State. The Buckeyes are 17½-point favorites.

Notre Dame's Michael Mayer runs with the ball during Notre Dame Fall Practice on Friday, August 12, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

Rudolph attended Elder High School, just seven miles north in Cincinnati. Whenever Mayer had a bye week, he would make the quick trip across the Ohio River to watch either Rudolph’s alma mater or fellow Cincinnati powerhouse La Salle.

“My dad actually had a good relationship with his dad,” Mayer said. “So that's kind of how we met first. Our dads were friends, and then our dads were talking about Notre Dame, and then me and Kyle were talking about Notre Dame.”

Leading the Irish in catches each of his first two seasons (he tied Javon McKinley with 42 in 2020) launched Mayer to stardom. But Rudolph, who Mayer passed on the Irish tight end charts with his ninth career touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State, said the junior is a “rare breed” who can also block.

“There aren't many of those guys in football these days," Rudolph said. "(There’s) a lot of specialty-type tight ends, and (Mayer) is kind of that old-school build body type and he can do it all."

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It’s an area Mayer said he has taken pride in as he emulates Rudolph, who he remembered as an “absolute beast” of a blocker in South Bend.

“I feel like I'm coming to the season way better at blocking than I had been the past two years,” Mayer said.

Though his focus is fully on this season, Mayer will almost certainly be playing on Sundays in 2023. In June, he was one of the three college invitees to Tight End U, a retreat for NFL players hosted at Nashville's Vanderbilt University by All-Pros George Kittle (San Francisco), Travis Kelce (Kansas City) and the retired Greg Olsen.

Nov 13, 2021; Charlottesville, Virginia, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish tight end Michael Mayer (87) celebrates after scoring a touchdown Fighting Irish quarterback Drew Pyne (10) and Fighting Irish tight end Kevin Bauman (84) against the Virginia Cavaliers during the first quarter at Scott Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sportsa

Fellow Irish tight end Kevin Bauman said Mayer was sending pictures and videos at every opportunity, but Mayer wasn’t dwelling on his advance welcome to the pro fraternity.

“The first thing I knew when I came out of there," Mayer said, "was, ‘Dang, I got to get better at some stuff.’”

He shared his notes with Notre Dame tight ends coach Gerad Parker for about 30-45 minutes upon his return before working on implementing those insights with the rest of the position group.

“I know the one thing he brought back, especially from Kittle," Bauman said, "was his ability to be running full speed and, on a dime, just kind of plant his one foot in the ground and cut."

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Mayer was equally impressed by the Pro Bowlers’ humility and patience as teachers. He chose similar words to describe Rudolph, who returned to Notre Dame and addressed the team during spring practice in April.

Rudolph is pleased to see Irish coach Marcus Freeman has encouraged visits from program alumni. He remembers what it meant to spend time with former players such as John Carlson, Anthony Fasano, Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija during his college career.

For Mayer, though, Rudolph’s example speaks for itself.

“I want to be," Mayer said, "just like that guy."