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‘One of the best tight ends I’ve coached’: Mayer enjoys record-breaking sophomore season

| Sunday, November 28, 2021

With just under ten minutes to play in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game, Notre Dame true freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner rolled right and dumped a pass to sophomore tight end Michael Mayer for minimal yardage. In a game that the Irish controlled, leading Stanford 38-14, it wasn’t a very noticeable play, Mayer hasn’t always been a flashy player. He’s a gritty, go-through-you-not-around-you type of player who seemingly never fails to have a major impact on the game. All that being said, there was one meaningful stat that emerged from the reception. It was Mayer’s 63rd of the season, tying the all-time single-season record for a Notre Dame tight end.

For a program that has pumped out NFL tight ends with the best of them, that’s certainly a noteworthy accomplishment.

It didn’t take long for Mayer to set the record either, and this one brought a little more bang for its buck. As Notre Dame orchestrated its final scoring drive of their regular season, quarterback Jack Coan found his favorite target for 34 yards to spark the final scoring drive. That was #64, giving Mayer the sole record. However, the sophomore was quick to spread the credit.

“I’m so appreciative of what everyone’s done for me. Game in and game out, [the coaches] put in an awesome game plan for me and for the offense,” Mayer said. “I don’t beat this record without those coaches, without the other eleven guys with me on the field.”

Even more impressive? Mayer broke the 2011 record of Tyler Eifert, who has been playing in the NFL since being a first-round draft pick in 2013. However, Eifert’s record wasn’t completed in the regular season — he needed six catches in the Champs Sports Bowl that season to secure the record.

Mayer continued to pass along the credit: “This record isn’t broken by me, it’s broken by the team.”

Mayer also continued to move up the leaderboard, moving into third all-time in Notre Dame tight end history in career receptions (106). He’ll need just 35 yards in Notre Dame’s postseason to set the single-season receiving yards record for an Irish tight end.  

This week, it was revealed that Mayer wasn’t a finalist for the Mackey Award, which is given to the best collegiate tight end. Kelly had plenty to say about that after the game.

“He’s not a finalist for the Mackey. Maybe that was … an oversight,” head coach Brian Kelly said, offering a sarcastic pause to emphasize his disdain for that decision. “Maybe they’ll get back together to revote.” 

Mayer didn’t lean into any extracurricular comments regarding the voting: “I think the social media reaction spoke for itself. I’m focused on the next game and not going to worry about what I can’t control.”

Mayer has been a contributor to the Notre Dame offense since playing in every game as a true freshman. Over the first eight games of his career, his presence was noticeable but not groundbreaking — Mayer averaged 2.6 receptions per game. However, over those final four games of 2020, his chemistry with quarterback Ian Book really developed, and the Irish fed their freshman tight end. He notched 5.3 catches per contest against Notre Dame’s final quartet of opponents, becoming a mainstay in the Irish offensive game plan.

After Notre Dame graduated eight offensive starters, Mayer was seen as the surest thing in the offense in 2021, but he would have to adjust to a new quarterback and a new role as a leader in the tight end room. From the first game of the season, it was clear the heightened responsibilities wouldn’t make the sophomore blink.

Against Florida State, under the lights in hostile territory, Mayer recorded a 41-yard touchdown reception on Notre Dame’s first offensive possession of the season. He finished with 9 catches for 120 yards. The follow-up effort? A 7-catch, 81-yard effort with two touchdowns, including the game-winner on Notre Dame’s final drive.

On Saturday, Mayer reinforced a comment he made after those early performances.

“I don’t believe anyone in the country can cover me one-on-one,” he said.

Mayer was essentially a healthy scratch this season against Virginia Tech. In every other game of his career, he’s recorded at least one reception. The 6’4, 251-pound matchup nightmare terrorizes opponents weekly. And as the receptions, yards and touchdowns piled up, the Notre Dame record books began to reflect it.

No one has slowed down Mayer in recent weeks. Going into the Stanford contest, Mayer had averaged 5.6 receptions per game over the past seven contests, those numbers limited by the game script. Notre Dame had won their past three games by 28, 25 and 55 points, limiting the need for a second-half passing attack. After another strong effort on Saturday, Mayer has recorded 7+ receptions on six occasions in 2021 with five touchdowns on the season.

As Notre Dame really got into their season-ending hot streak, Mayer continued to be a focal point of the offense. He did a little bit of everything; against UNC, the sophomore absolutely demolished his blocking assignment to spring junior running back Kyren Williams for a 91-yard touchdown run. He tacked on 51 receiving yards in that game.

“He’s complete in every facet … a beast,” Kelly praised Mayer. “He’s a guy that you double, and he finds himself open — a difference-maker vertically. And he is a leader off the field.”

Two weeks after UNC, against Virginia, Notre Dame targeted Mayer early and often. He produced a touchdown and an absurd highlight-reel catch. The Independence, Kentucky product trapped an underthrown pass against his defender’s back, hauling in one of his most impressive receptions of the season. He finished the Virginia game with a gritty seven catches for 84 yards. After that effort, Kelly sang his praise for the sophomore, calling him a ‘freak’ and noting that Notre Dame scripted their offensive attack around a heavy dose of targets for Mayer.

Mayer is far from a secret. Even Kelly was willing to admit the Irish plan to get him the ball frequently. Yet, no one can seem to stop him. Against Georgia Tech, Mayer broke free down the seam for a 52-yard touchdown reception — a career-long. That sparked an 84-yard performance, his fifth effort of 80+ yards in 2021. He made that six against Stanford. 

On Saturday, in Palo Alto, Mayer continued to do Michael Mayer things. #87 for the blue and gold was all over the field. He issued a punishing block to spring another big run for the Irish in the red zone.

“I take tons of pride in my blocking. I’ve definitely upped my blocking since last year,” Mayer said, before discussing his fellow tight end, senior George Takacs. “Me and George, I don’t think there’s a better 1-2 punch of blocking tight ends in this country.”

The blocking was good again, but Mayer was again extremely active in the passing game. With nine catches for 105 yards, Mayer again made his presence known throughout the game. And, while Mayer continues to wow on the field, his presence as a constant threat, plus his off-the-field leadership, has opened up opportunities for the other Irish tight ends. Takacs notched his first touchdown reception of the season on Saturday, notching a 2-yard reception for the score. Mayer drew plenty of red-zone coverage on the play, allowing Takacs to exploit a 1-on-1 matchup. Mayer praised the senior:

“Takacs has worked his tail off all year. I’m glad it’s coming to fruition,” Mayer said of his teammate. “I’m so happy for the dude. He finally got his.”

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Irish sophomore tight end Michael Mayer celebrates with senior teammate and tight end George Takacs by leaping on top of him in Notre Dame’s 45-14 victory over Stanford on Saturday at Stanford Stadium.

Few words can effectively sum up Mayer’s impact on the Fighting Irish over the last two seasons. Kelly, among a lot of other postgame comments, said it best.

“He’s one of the best, if not the best, tight ends that I’ve ever coached.”

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About Aidan Thomas

A junior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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