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Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 87 Michael Mayer, junior tight end, likely All-American

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - JANUARY 01: Michael Mayer #87 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish dives to score a touchdown past Kolby Harvell-Peel #31 of the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the second quarter during the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium on January 01, 2022 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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Listed measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 251 pounds.2022-23 year, eligibility: A junior, Mayer technically has three seasons of eligibility remaining thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver in 2020, but he will undoubtedly leave two of those years unused when he enters the NFL draft after this season.Depth Chart: Mayer is not only Notre Dame’s top tight end; he may be the best Irish player overall.Recruiting: A consensus four-star prospect, the No. 36 overall recruit in the class of 2020 and the No. 3 tight end in the class, per, Mayer chose the Irish over Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Texas — you get the point. He could have gone anywhere.

Curiously enough, the two tight ends ranked ahead of him, Arik Gilbert and Darnell Washington, now play on the same team and neither is the best tight end there. Gilbert originally committed and went to LSU, where he was named Freshman All-SEC in 2020 with 35 catches for 368 yards and two touchdowns. He then transferred to Georgia, joining Washington, but he missed the national championship season due to personal reasons. Washington, meanwhile made nine catches for 145 yards and one touchdown in seven games, missing some time due to a foot injury.

Ahead of both, and perhaps ahead of Mayer in the national landscape as it pertains to All-American teams, is sophomore Brock Bowers. To tie this back to the original point, the recruiting rankings were too low on Bowers, as well, slotting him as the No. 8 tight end in the class of 2021.

It will never not boggle the mind that the NCAA once restricted athletes from holding camps under their own names to connect with youth in their hometowns. Worse yet, there are still supposed fans of college football who think nothing good comes from athletes now having NIL rights.

Mayer and his brother A.J., former Miami (OH) quarterback now transferring to Arkansas State, did just that last month, and is this not the entire point of sports?

Mayer was not Notre Dame’s starter from the outset of his career. Tommy Tremble held onto that role in 2020, but that was more nominal than anything else. Tight ends starting a game can be determined by the first play call as much as anything else. Mayer made his mark clear from his arrival on campus, right away looking like a Power Five starter.

2020: 12 games, 42 catches for 450 yards and two touchdowns.2021: 12 games, 71 catches for 840 yards and seven touchdowns.

That seven touchdowns mark set a record at “Tight End U,” one that had stood for far too long, tracing back to Ken MacAfee in 1977. More pertinently, Mayer has led or nearly led the Irish in every receiving category in both years.

2020: Tied for the lead in catches (with Javon McKinley), second in yards (McKinley) and third in touchdowns (Bennett Skowronek and McKinley).2021: Led in catches, second in yards (Kevin Austin ) and tied for the lead in touchdowns (Austin).

One quote speaks to Mayer’s future more than any other, and it comes from one of the few defenders who could match up with Mayer in 2021, someone who happened to do so in practices for most of two years.

Don’t expect to hear Mayer discuss that reality much, though. He is too smart and too polished for that, as he has been since he was a freshman.

Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and new tight ends coach Gerad Parker challenged Mayer to be more of a vocal leader this spring, and in giving him that challenge, they also gave him another line to add to his canned responses. His ability to offer the cliché as sincere would make Crash Davis blush. Consider this answer in April in response to a question about his thoughts on the Mackey Award, given annually to the best tight end in the country, an award he not only did not win in 2021 but was not even named a finalist for.

“I would say right now, I’m focused on being a football player, being the best football player I can be, being the best leader I can be,” Mayer said. “Whatever happens after that, that’s out of my control. I’m just going to try to be the best leader, be the best football player I can be.”

“Suggesting Mayer can and should exceed all those tight ends is bold in several ways. His effectiveness will depend on that arrival of an additional option. Comparing his stats to those from 12 years ago is a difficult endeavor given how offenses have changed, even if comparing to one that enjoyed a supposed decided schematic advantage back then.

“But it is the correct suggestion, nonetheless. In a shortened season led by a ball-dominant run-game, Mayer caught 42 passes for 450 yards. Simply stretch that into a 13th game and that is 46 receptions for 488 yards. That alone would exceed Rudolph’s 2009 (33 catches, 364 yards, 3 scores). It would rival Kmet’s 2019 (43 catches, 515 yards, 6 scores). It would not be all that far off from Eifert’s junior season (50 catches, 685 yards, 4 scores).

“And that is if Mayer does not progress at all, even when featured as Notre Dame’s lead receiving option.

“The last time the Irish returned an uncertain offensive line and little proven receivers, if any, was 2018. Miles Boykin had 18 career catches heading into that season, and Notre Dame needed to replace the all-time left-side combo of Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson.

“Boykin finished that year with 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns in a breakout campaign as a senior. Such a stat line would outdo even Eifert’s excellent 2011 (63 catches, 803 yards, 5 scores as a sophomore). Outright expecting that of Mayer is quite an escalation, but consider that the baseline for what will eventually be a preseason prediction.”

Captain, simply because if not now, then it will be never. All-American, Bower notwithstanding. Record-setter, breaking his own.

Not enough can be expected from Mayer in 2022. Predicting his successes risks underselling what may come next. Alas, a prediction should follow.

Defenses will focus on Mayer until fifth-year receiver Braden Lenzy or sophomore Lorenzo Styles makes them pay for it, but even if that never happens, those defenses will still have a problem: They do not have Kyle Hamilton.

It is not hyperbolic to say Hamilton was one of few — a handful, at the absolute most — collegiate defenders who could handle Mayer one-on-one in 2021, and by “handle,” what is really meant is, “get beat only half the time.” When sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner looks for Mayer, he will see him open. At that point, it will simply be a question of Buchner putting the ball where Mayer can catch it.

A renewed Irish focus on the run and an unproven quarterback could work against Mayer putting up monster numbers, counteracting those mismatches. Thus, this prediction is more of a shot in the dark than last year’s eerily accurate one was.

No Notre Dame tight end has ever cracked 1,000 yards. If Mayer is anywhere near that pace in November, Irish head coach Marcus Freeman will encourage Rees to make it happen. But just as Kyren Williams needed a last-minute dash to the end zone in the regular-season finale at Stanford last year to reach 1,000 rushing yards, Mayer may need to reach four digits in just 12 games. Not to look to the end of the season before it begins, but consider Mayer unlikely to play in any non-Playoff bowl game.

That math comes down to 83.3 yards per game. Last year, Mayer had five games of more than 80 receiving yards, including two north of 100. Boldly doubling each of those would have Mayer needing to average 60 yards in the other two games of the season. In other words, he would have no room for error if chasing 1,000 yards.

It is more likely he ends up with 80-plus catches for 900 yards and eight or nine touchdowns. Hardly a disappointing season.

RELATED READING: Leadership, route running keep Notre Dame TE Michael Mayer improving despite rampant successes already

And then, a first-round pick. If healthy, there is no doubt about it. Some NFL front offices let it slip in 2021 that they would have considered Mayer a first-rounder then, after just his freshman season.

And to think, the recruiting rankings did not consider him the top tight end in his class.

From Blake Grupe to Braden Lenzy, the offseason countdown begins anew
No. 99 Blake Grupe, kicker, Arkansas State transfer
No. 99 Rylie Mills, junior defensive lineman, a tackle now playing more at end

No. 98 Tyson Ford, early-enrolled freshman, a defensive tackle recruited as a four-star end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, sophomore defensive tackle, still ‘as wide as a Volkswagen’
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a junior defensive tackle who tore his ACL in March
No. 91 Josh Bryan, sophomore kicker
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, early-enrolled freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90 Alexander Ehrensberger, junior defensive end, a German project nearing completion
No. 89 Eli Raridon, incoming freshman tight end with a torn ACL
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, sophomore tight end

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