Early in the second quarter, with the game tied at seven, Notre Dame dialed up a play that surprised everyone in the stadium: a jet sweep to junior tight end Michael Mayer.
“He’s a beast,” head coach Marcus Freeman said after the game. “[Mayer] is a heck of a football player, and you’re a fool if you don’t find ways to get the ball in his hands, and we found a unique way.”
The play gained seven yards but seemed to catch the North Carolina defense off guard. Just two plays later, Notre Dame scored their second touchdown of the game to take a 14-7 lead.
“You wouldn’t think [Mayer] is getting the ball on a jet sweep,” Freeman said. “It’s going to make a [defensive back] think twice about coming in there and tackling him.”
Mayer was all over the field Saturday afternoon for the Irish. The 6’4, 265-pound tight end is an imposing specimen who presents matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. He’s simply too big for most defensive backs to cover, and he’s too skilled for most linebackers.
The matchup problems he presents for opposing defensive coordinators have led them to seemingly focus their schemes on slowing him down this year, but that hasn’t stopped him from being able to make big plays when the Irish need it most.
He finished Saturday’s contest with seven receptions for 88 yards, which included a 10-yard touchdown reception that opened the scoring for Notre Dame and two critical third-down conversions that extended drives for the Irish.
“I was able to find Mike a couple more times this week, and just execute and do my job and get the ball to him,” junior quarterback Drew Pyne said. “I’m very happy because he’s such a great player and getting the ball in his hands is something that our offense can really benefit from.”
Mayer nearly hauled in another touchdown on what would have been an incredible highlight reel play, but after a lengthy review, he was ruled to have been out of bounds.
Freeman noted that the offense has to resist the temptation to solely focus on Mayer.
“You can’t just focus all on [Mayer], that’s the challenge,” Freeman said. “It’s easy to say, hey, [Mayer] gets one on one, throw it to him, but you have to make sure that you have enough ways to get him the ball, but also can use him as a decoy, almost in terms of the the progression, in terms of opening other things on the field.”
Mayer was held to a limited role in the loss to Ohio State to open the season, with just five receptions for 32 yards. Sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner often looked his way, but the Buckeye defense was able to limit his output.
He exploded back onto the scene with an eight-reception, 130-yard effort against Marshall, which included a late touchdown, but it wasn’t enough to save the Irish from the upset. He returned to a more limited role against Cal, with only two receptions for 10 yards. One of those catches, however, was the game-winning touchdown grab in the fourth quarter.
By contrast, on Saturday, it was clear that he would be getting the ball early and often. Pyne’s first completion of the afternoon was a six-yard pass to Mayer on 3rd and 5 which extended a critical early drive for the Irish. Pyne kept turning to him in big moments throughout the contest.
“He’s a guy who can do so many different things for you,” Freeman said.
It’s not just his on-field presence that makes Mayer unique, however. It is also his presence off the field and in the locker room. Prior to the season, Mayer was selected as a team captain and is one of the leaders of the offense.
“The thing you love about Michael Mayer is that he comes to work every day,” Freeman said. “He sets the standard for how we prepare.”
In what is an inexperienced tight end room, Mayer has emerged as the unquestioned leader. His leadership will become even more critical with his primary backup, junior Kevin Bauman, ruled out for the season this week with an ACL injury.
“He’s a captain, he’s a leader, he raises the play of those guys in his room,” Freeman said. “You’ll see those young guys step up because Michael Mayer’s in there making sure that everybody’s going to perform to a standard.”
Mayer’s continued performance will be critical to the success of the Irish this season. He has an immense impact on the team, but Pyne summed it up succinctly: “Mike’s just an unbelievable player.”
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