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Notre Dame Offensive Player to Watch: Tight end Michael Mayer

The Fighting Irish have a long history of talented tight ends, and Mayer has a chance to finish his collegiate career as one of the absolute best in program history.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Ohio State Buckeyes will face a stiff test to open the 2022 season, especially on defense. Sure, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish lost their starting quarterback from 2021, as well as their top running back and top wide receiver, but they return plenty of other skill position players and a solid offensive line.

Offensive coordinator and ND alum Tommy Rees is also back to lead the unit, which should come as a huge relief to first-time head coach and former Buckeye, Marcus Freeman. Rees is a rising star in the college ranks — so much so that Brian Kelly attempted to poach him for his new LSU staff. But Rees turned down his former boss, and will have the keys to the proverbial car on offense.

The OC’s decision to stick with Notre Dame was a big offseason win for the program, but their most important offensive returnee still wears shoulder pads on Saturday(s). He is a supremely talented tight end, who also happens to be a preseason All-American, a likely 2023 first-round draft pick, and arguably the Irish’s best player — on either side of the ball. Oh yeah, he also caught 23 more balls than any other pass catcher on the team last year, and 39 more than the leading returnee at WR.

His name is Michael Mayer, and he is this season’s first Offensive Player to Watch.

Mayer is the latest in a long line of successful, NFL-ready tight ends that have come through Notre Dame. The tradition of TE excellence goes back multiple decades, but since 2011 alone, the Irish have seen eight of their super-sized pass catchers taken in the NFL Draft. Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, and Cole Kmet are a few of the college stars whose game(s) translated well to the next level, but Mayer might be the best of the bunch when all is said and done. He is that good.

The Kentucky native was an early commit to ND, doing so in July of 2018 (2020 enrollee). 247Sports had Mayer ranked as the No. 2 TE in his class – and a top-50 player overall – but he shut his recruitment down fairly early, choosing the Irish over Georgia, Texas, Penn State, Alabama, and others. He also made an unofficial visit to Ohio State in April of 2018, but the Buckeyes were never considered a favorite for his services. Mayer hit the ground running in South Bend, and has never looked back.

In his first game as a true freshman, Mayer had three receptions for 38 yards against Duke. The following week, he was named a starter. He performed well throughout the season, with some of his best games coming against ND’s stiffest competition. He caught five passes for 67 yards in an upset of No. 1 Clemson, put up nearly an identical state line against the Tigers in the ACC Championship Game, and then led the Irish with seven receptions and 62 yards against Alabama in the Rose Bowl. ND lost the game (because Brian Kelly loses big bowl games), but Mayer announced his presence to the college football world, and established himself as a budding star.

The talented tight end carried momentum into 2021, and had one of the best seasons by a TE in Notre Dame history. Mayer opened the season with a nine-catch, 120-yard, and one touchdown performance against Florida State. He then added 7/81/2 in Week 2, before cooling down a bit and failing to add another score until mid-November. However, he still led the team in receptions and/or yards a number of times. And he closed the season out strong, averaging a stat line of 7/87/1 over the Irish’s last four games. Mayer finished with 71 receptions (led the team, ND record for TE), 840 yards (ND record for TE), and 7 TD (you guessed it, a ND record for TE) — for which he was named a Mackey Award Semifinalist and AP Third Team All-American.

Sounds like the antithesis of what Ohio State fans would like their linebackers and new defense to face in Week 1. But this is the challenge, and this is what Jim Knowles and Co. were brought in for.

As a tight end and draft prospect, Mayer has everything you are looking for. He has prototypical size at roughly 6-foot-5, 260 pounds. He is a better receiver than he is a blocker, but he can hold his own at the line of scrimmage. And his athleticism translates well to the football field, meaning: he has quick feet, solid change of direction for a big man, and can make catches “above the rim”. Mayer’s straight-line speed is not elite for his position, but it doesn’t seem to slow down his production. When he gets open – or into the body of an opposing defender – he is coming down with the ball more often than not.

Mayer will have the occasional concentration drop, and there were games where a number of his receptions came on check-downs or underneath routes (not that he can’t get downfield when called upon). Those are not knocks against him; those are nitpicks in his game. He is truly the total package as far as college tight ends go.

If the Buckeyes are going to slow Mayer down, I think they need to keep him “busy” and force him to stay in as a blocker as often as possible. I would like to see them blitz — all the damn time, forcing ND to make a decision. Cover him one-on-one, as opposed to zone, and have a second set of eyes on him during each play. Lastly, hit him with all they’ve got, because he is a load to bring down. Mayer should be priority 1A and 1B for the OSU defense, as he is by far their most proven offensive threat.

Adding to the pressure of the moment, is the fact that this is the first time we will be seeing Jim Knowles’ new Ohio State defense under the bright lights... literally. Have they put everything together? Have they developed groupthink, as far as where to be on the field, and when to be there? And can they minimize Michael Mayer’s impact on the game? Saturday will be a heck of a first test, against a heck of an offensive weapon.