Blue and Gold Illustrated

June-July 2022

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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16 JUNE/JULY 2022 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY PATRICK ENGEL T he debut season for Notre Dame's 2020 signing class felt like the soft launch of a business. There was enough appeal and star power to drum up interest going into the season, even though it had just 17 signees and was ranked outside the top 15 by two major outlets. The 2020 season brought some freshman contri- butions, starting with a tight end who has already etched his name in record books and a running back who might be the team's fastest player. Overall, though, just four players saw meaningful action on offense or de- fense. Had coaching staffs needed to worry about redshirts that year, only five players would have burned them. (The NCAA said the 2020 season would not count toward an athlete's eligibil- ity). Notre Dame had a veteran-laden team that didn't need to press fresh- men into action, especially in a year with COVID-19 challenges added to the usual college adjustments. The grand opening would come a year later. Sure enough, eight players out of the 14 available from the class started at least one game in 2021. Five of them were sea- son-long role players or starters. A cou- ple others who didn't earn a start or play most every game still earned some high- leverage opportunities, namely quarter- back Drew Pyne and safety Xavier Watts. This cohort's junior-year impact should be more of the same. Mayer is arguable the team's biggest star and most dominant player. Defensive end Rylie Mills looks primed for a break- out now that he has all but locked up a starting role. Three other juniors could easily claim opening-day starting jobs. There's a path to all 13 healthy juniors appearing on the opening week two- deep, with 11 or 12 as the minimum. MAYER'S ENCORE Yes, it's possible for a Mayer to be even better than he is. He knows it and admits it. So does his position coach, Gerad Parker. They sound serious about acting on it, too. Neither spit out clichés about always improving or avoiding complacency during their respective spring practice press conferences. Parker's job is to en- sure Mayer stays on his NFL path, or in more blunt terms, to not mess him up. He could stand next to Mayer and ac- complish it. Instead, though, he has an emphasis for Mayer this spring that he thinks can add another dimension to an already dynamic receiver. Route depth. "Maybe he was getting a catch in years past that would allow him to get tack- led, but if we pushed our depth and got more out of it, he would have been able to catch and run with it longer," Parker said. "He's understanding the importance of true depth in routes when it matters." Listening to Mayer discuss route depth supports his coach's claim. He sounds like an upperclassman who has grown to appreciate the finer points of his position and understands natural talent only takes him so far. It has carried him a good distance, of course. He's a clear three-and-done NFL prospect and projected first-round pick. Yet he looks at his 71-catch, 840-yard, 7-touchdown season last year that set program records for a tight end and sees ways to outdo it. Starting with route depth. "If I shorten a route by two yards or two steps, maybe I'll get five yards instead of 10 yards," Mayer said. "When you're running a route — say it's in man, zone, doesn't matter — the corner or safety is going to back up until they see you break. If you take the extra two steps before, they're going to keep backing up and you're going to have more room to catch and run instead of breaking early and you don't have a ton of room to work with." Mayer and Parker are onto something. As unguardable as Mayer was for much of last season, his 4.9 yards after catch per reception ranked 17th out of 26 tight ends with at least 50 targets, per Pro Football Focus. His route-running pre- cision and burst out of breaks make him nearly impossible for most linebackers and safeties to blanket, but he found himself in their grasp after a reception earlier than desired. "I need to work on getting deeper," Mayer said. "I get eager, I want the ball. I want to get those catches. I can't cut it short. It's something I have to work on." He has a reputable teacher in Parker, who knows a little bit about teaching routes technique. He was a receivers coach the last two years at West Vir- ginia, and at Penn State (2019) and Duke (2018) before that. He held the same role at Marshall (2011-12) and Purdue (2015- 16). He called Mayer the best separator at the top of routes of any player he has coached — tight end or receiver. "You can put him anywhere," Parker said. "It's really unlimited where you can put him because of his ability to un- derstand route running. He can run the route tree." BOUNCE BACKS AND BREAKOUTS Running back Chris Tyree and cor- nerback Clarence Lewis were freshman contributors from the jump, Tyree the main backup to Kyren Williams and Lewis a six-game starter. Their sopho- more seasons stagnated their momen- tum, though. Run blocking problems in September and a nagging turf toe injury in Octo- ber and November weighed Tyree down much of the year. He rushed for just 222 yards on 4.0 yards per carry with one touchdown. His injury gave freshman Logan Diggs a chance to jump in the rotation, and Diggs never left even when Tyree returned to full participation. CONTRIBUTORS APLENTY Notre Dame's junior class has a star at the top and should provide ample depth in 2022 Michael Mayer set single-season program records for catches (71) and touchdowns (7) by a tight end in 2021. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER

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