Marcus Freeman on Notre Dame star Michael Mayer: 'He's a beast, man'

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Michael Mayer, Notre Dame’s 260-pound freak of nature at tight end, found a new and exciting way to terrorize opposing defenses in Saturday’s 45-32 win at North Carolina.

The jet sweep.

No, really.

“You wouldn’t think ‘87’ is getting the ball on a jet sweep, but he did it,” Irish coach Marcus Freeman said with a mischievous grin. “It’s going to make a (defensive back) think twice about coming in there and tackling him.”

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer (87) goes past North Carolina defensive back DeAndre Boykins (16) for a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022 (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Saturday, it was Tar Heel safeties Gio Biggers (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) and Cam’Ron Kelly (6-1, 210) waiting for Mayer as he came steamrolling around left end on first down from the Irish 34. The score was knotted at 7 early in the second quarter, and Notre Dame was still trying to impose its will on one of the nation’s worst defenses -- by almost any statistical measure.

Somehow, Biggers and Kelly managed to stop the rumbling Greek God of Thunder after a gain of 7 yards. The collective trauma for Gene “Swiss” Chizik’s defense, however, must have been significant.

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Two plays later, Notre Dame was in the end zone.

Audric Estime roared up the middle for 29 yards, thanks to a gorgeous seal block by reserve tight end Davis Sherwood, and then Drew Pyne found Lorenzo Styles for a 30-yard touchdown on the post route.

Overwhelming force

Conventional running plays had gained just 32 yards for the visitors on seven attempts before the Mayer jet sweep. Soon thereafter, the floodgates opened on what ultimately became a 287-yard rushing afternoon for Notre Dame.

The threat of Mayer, who went for 88 yards and a score on seven receptions, had plenty to do with that.

“He’s a beast, man,” Freeman said. “Eighty-seven is a heck of a football player. You’re a fool if you don’t find ways to get the ball in his hands, and we found unique ways.”

After Mayer averaged just five touches in the first three games this season, Freeman made it clear at the start of the week that getting the ball to the preseason All-America was a priority. Just as he did during Cal week with his public wish to see speedy playmaker Chris Tyree get more involved, Freeman spoke this one into existence.

No need for offensive coordinator Tommy Rees to apologize for his language after Saturday’s win. Any cursing that might have taken place up in the coach’s box would have been of the celebratory variety.

Losing Kevin Bauman, the No. 2 Irish tight end, to a torn ACL during the week only increased the attention Mayer figured to draw from the UNC defense. At one point on the touchdown drive that put Notre Dame ahead for good, Mayer had seemingly half a dozen sky-blue jerseys clinging to him as he nearly backpedaled his way into the end zone.

That 19-yard gain — a Reverse (Mark) Bavaro, if you will — called to mind the superhuman antics as a New York Giant of one of Mayer’s many talented positional forebears at Notre Dame. Mayer now ranks second all-time among program tight ends in both receptions (five behind Tyler Eifert) and touchdowns (three behind Ken MacAfee).

“He’s a guy that can do so many different things for you,” Freeman said of Mayer. “You can’t just focus only on ’87.’ That’s the challenge. It’s easy to say, ‘Hey, ‘87’ gets 1-on-1 (coverage), throw it to him.’ “

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Mayer finished the day with nine targets after he went a ridiculous 37 game minutes between targets in the Cal game. Mayer eventually beat the Bears for the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter, but he showed against the Tar Heels just how valuable he can be even when he’s not directly involved in the play.

“You have to make sure you have enough ways to get him the ball,” Freeman said, “but also (you) can use him as a decoy almost in terms of a progression (and) opening other things on the field.”

That’s what seemed to happen as the Irish pounded out 35 first downs, their most in more than a quarter century (1996). Estime finished with 134 rushing yards and nearly had a third rushing score but for a goal-line fumble that went for a touchback.

Tyree added 104 yards from scrimmage, and Logan Diggs, back after missing the Cal game due to illness, had 115 total yards. That included a 34-yard touchdown catch when it seemed he had one half of the field to himself.

Of course, he did. Mayer was drawing frozen stares on the other side.

“Mike’s just an unbelievable player,” Pyne said. “Getting the ball in his hands is something our offense can really benefit from. I was able to find Mike a couple more times this week. I’m very happy because he’s such a great player.”

Better still, Mayer will never complain, publicly or otherwise. You might remember the casual shrug he gave on camera leading into the Ohio State game when it was suggested he might be double-teamed (or worse) all season long.

“If I’m not open, then somebody else is going to be open and (the quarterback) is going to get them the ball,” Mayer said with a knowing smile. “And we’re going to keep doing that until we win the game and then we’ll get out of there with a ‘W’ and then prepare for the next game, you know?”

'He sets the standard'

Saturday, UNC knew right away Mayer was too much for it to handle, whether he was a decoy or the primary receiver or doing a scary cameo on the jet sweep normally reserved for Tyree and fellow speedster Braden Lenzy.

“The thing you love about Michael Mayer is he comes to work every day,” Freeman said. “He prepares the right way. He sets the standard for how we prepare. He’s a captain, he’s a leader, he raises the play of those guys in his room.”

Losing Bauman for the year is a gut punch, especially after the fractured fibula that wrecked his 2021 from Week 1 at Florida State. Freeman’s hope, however, is that Mitchell Evans will return from mid-July foot surgery in time for the BYU game on Oct. 8 in Las Vegas.

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Plus, there’s Davis, the former walk-on, and uber-talented freshmen Eli Raridon and Holden Staes, who were on the field a little more Saturday and could get more chances moving forward.

“You’ll see those young guys step up because Michael Mayer’s in there and making sure everybody is going to perform to a standard,” Freeman said. “Everybody’s got a standard, and everybody’s going to have to learn. This is going to be good to see his leadership capabilities have to really rise.”

Right along with the pulse rates of defensive backs across the land after that experimental jet sweep.

Follow Notre Dame football beat writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino and on TikTok @mikeberardinoNDI.