Rees adds new wrinkle to Notre Dame's short-yardage offense ... the tight end sneak

Greg McKenna
Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — When Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne hobbled off the field after getting leveled at the UNLV 1 yard-line at the end of a 21-yard scramble in the second quarter Saturday, it seemed like Steve Angeli's time had finally arrived.

The backup true freshmen from New Jersey's Bergen Catholic — who uneasy Irish fans clamor for whenever Pyne struggles — entered his first collegiate game to take his first collegiate snap with the end zone 3 feet away.

That snap never made it to Angeli, instead going directly to the backup tight end.

Meet Mitchell Evans, a sophomore from Wadsworth, Ohio with two career catches on his resume who wasn't even listed on Notre Dame's depth chart this week.

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It was a bold call for Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees who also had 227-pound bulldozer Audric Estime lined up to Angeli's left.

With Pyne — who would return the next series to play the remainder of the game — being evaluated after the hit to the head, Angeli looked to the sideline as if waiting for a play call. At that point Evans went in motion from the left edge and settled under center, quickly taking the snap and using his 6-foot-5, 255-pound frame to barrel into the end zone and put the Irish up 30-7.

“I don't know if (Rees) would have called it if (Pyne) was still in the game,” head coach Marcus Freeman said after Notre Dame’s 44-21 over the Rebels, “but it (was) executed, so maybe we'll expand that package a little bit.”

Notre Dame tight end Mitchell Evans (88) celebrates scoring during the Notre Dame vs. UNLV Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.
(Photo: Michael Caterina, South Bend Tribune)

When needing 2 yards or less, the Irish (4-3) entered Saturday only 7 of 15 on third and fourth down. The creative play call, Freeman said, was part of his challenge to the offense to be better in short-yardage situations.

As former NFL coach Jason Garrett pointed out on the NBC broadcast on Peacock, the play call seemed inspired by how the Kansas City Chiefs have used All-Pro Travis Kelce and the rest of their tight ends in certain packages. At the goal-line against the Buccaneers on Sunday Night Football earlier this month, quarterback Patrick Mahomes pointed at Kelce as fellow tight end Noah Gray went under center and scored.

Notre Dame quarterback Steve Angeli (18) lines up under center as tight end Mitchell Evans (88) prepares to take the snap during the Notre Dame vs. UNLV Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.
(Photo: Michael Caterina, South Bend Tribune)

Michael Mayer, Notre Dame's first-string All-American tight end, said Irish coaches often try out ideas from watching Sunday or Monday night football at practices early in the week.

“That little QB sneak to Mitch is something we practiced a lot, and it looked good every single time we ran it,” said Mayer, who is expected to be a first round NFL Draft pick after this season. “I'm glad that worked out the way it did.”

Mayer added that it was a “very cool moment” to see Evans, who missed the first five games of the season rehabbing from surgery on a broken left foot, score in his second game back. Evans saw action in 13 games as a freshman, catching two passes for 21 yards. Now he has two carries for five yards and a TD.

The Rebels (4-4, 2-2 Mountain West) would not have needed to watch NFL tape to prepare, though.

Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer (87) and  running back Logan Diggs (3) celebrate during the Notre Dame vs. University of Nevada NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

The Irish had run the identical play three plays before, Evans gaining 4 yards on a third-and-1 just inside the UNLV 40, the again showed the same look late in the third quarter on a third down near midfield before calling timeout as UNLV stacked the box.

The sneaks weren’t the first time Rees has found unorthodox ways to get his tight ends involved in the run game this season. Against North Carolina, Mayer went for 7 yards on a jet sweep.

Any chance he goes under center next?

“We’ll see,” Mayer said, cracking a smile. “You’ll have to wait on that one.”