Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Tight ends, moving on from an all-time great
Was Michael Mayer underappreciated?
For a certain first-round draft pick that set every season and career record for tight end receiving at Notre Dame, that may seem hard to fathom. But when the Irish have only good tight ends and not an all-time great in 2023, Mayer’s impact may take on a new, even more complimentary perspective.
Though by no means will Notre Dame be lacking. It is just inevitable that the position takes a step back after Mayer’s departure. Such has been foreseen for at least two years now, and it will be thoroughly realized this fall, if not this spring.
That dropoff alone will change the Irish offense in 2023 as much as any coordinator change will.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Can that be this entire subsection? It may seem extreme, but it was true. He was Drew Pyne’s safety valve; he was the best third-down conversion thought; he demanded most of a defense’s focus.
Some of that tied to Notre Dame’s dearth of other reliable offensive options, but most of it tied to how good Mayer was. This was a player some NFL scouts wanted to spend a first-round pick on two years ago.
Behind Mayer, the Irish tight ends revolved through injuries. First, freshman Eli Raridon was coming off an ACL torn in high school. Then, sophomore Mitchell Evans injured his foot in the summer. Next, junior Kevin Bauman tore his ACL in the season’s third week.
Raridon was playing, as was classmate Holden Staes, but Raridon’s season would end when he tore his ACL in a practice in mid-October. Fortunately for Notre Dame, Evans returned to the field right about the same time.
Throughout, sophomore Cane Berrong saw action in only one game and was never a piece of the offense, making a December transfer decision not so surprising.
Mayer: 12 games; 67 catches for 809 yards and 9 touchdowns.Evans: 8 games; 3 catches for 39 yards and 1 touchdown with 7 rushes for 11 yards and 1 touchdown.Kevin Bauman: 3 games; 3 catches for 44 yards.Holden Staes: 11 games; 1 catch for 11 yards.
RELATED READING: Notre Dame gets the letter: Consensus four-star tight end Cooper FlanaganNotre Dame 99-to-0: No. 88 Mitchell Evans, sophomore tight endNotre Dame 99-to-0: No. 85 Holden Staes, incoming freshman tight endNotre Dame 99-to-0: No. 84 Kevin Bauman, junior tight endNotre Dame 99-to-0: No. 9 Eli Raridon, incoming freshman tight end with a torn ACL
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
First, find health.
Evans is healthy. So is Staes. Raridon could be by the time preseason practices commence, even if they do so a week earlier this summer because of the Irish trip to Dublin a week before the season genuinely starts. (Notre Dame’s first practice before the 2023 season should be July 28, though of course mentioning that is putting two carts before the proverbial horse given spring practice is between now and then, dates yet uncertain aside from the Blue-Gold Game being April 22.)
On a typical timeline, Bauman would be just a bit before then. Maybe, if he is ahead of pace, he will be able to do some non-contact work this spring, but that is most likely a bit more aggressive than reality.
That will leave Evans and Staes, and while Raridon should be a viable downfield threat when healthy, by missing this spring, he will presumably enter the 2023 season behind both Evans and Staes on the depth chart.
If any successful modern tight end besides Mayer had preceded the duo, it would be easy to say they will be more physical than him. But Mayer was all things.
Rather, Evans and Staes will be more “traditional” tight ends, in that they align closer to the tackle box and run their routes not much further than the first-down marker on most occasions. One or both should find success, but Notre Dame’s tight end utilization will change drastically in 2023, both because Mayer is off to the NFL and because injuries have limited the available options.
Regardless, one thing that is less likely to be a 2023 feature is the “Mitch-A-Palooza” package, lining Evans up behind center in third- or fourth-and-one situations. Tommy Rees was comfortable with the move for a few reasons, beginning with the fact that Evans was not his primary tight end, so any added risk to the deployment would not impact Notre Dame’s starting lineup.
Furthermore, it capitalized on the Irish having proven, veteran guards, both of which now need to be replaced.
Evans’ role now will mirror his Gator Bowl showcase, in which he caught the game-winning touchdown as part of a 3-catch, 39-yard day.