Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2023

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

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22 JANUARY 2023 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY PATRICK ENGEL AND TYLER HORKA M arcus Freeman has a few more gray hairs in his beard as 2022 comes to a close than he did at the end of 2021. Can you blame him? He just went through his first year as the head coach at Notre Dame, one of the most high-profile jobs in his profession. And what a hectic year it was. He had to assemble a coaching staff for the first time in his life. And just when he thought he had that mostly figured out, his defensive line coach, Mike Elston, left South Bend to take the same job at Michigan, his alma mater. Before then, running backs coach Lance Taylor was bought into the Freeman era until Louis- ville came calling to make him the Cardi- nals' offensive coordinator. Freeman waited out Al Golden's run at a Super Bowl with the Cincinnati Bengals to make him the Fighting Irish's defen- sive coordinator. Of course, that hire was not finalized until mid-February. Immediately thereafter, Freeman con- ducted his first spring practice session — a month of important on-field work that shapes the outlook of the offseason. His presumed starting quarterback, soph- omore Tyler Buchner, rolled his ankle walking down a set of stairs on campus and was not able to start the Blue-Gold Game. Nothing is ever easy, right? Right. That's exactly what Freeman said was his biggest takeaway from Year 1. Buchner's Blue-Gold Game absence was nothing compared to the shoulder injury he suffered in Week 2. It required surgery, and Notre Dame was without him for the final 10 games of the regular season. Freeman could have let that define the season, but he didn't. He put full con- fidence and trust in backup-turned- starter Drew Pyne, and the Irish finished the year on an 8-2 roll that earned them a trip to the Gator Bowl Dec. 30. They'll go down to Jacksonville, Fla., without Pyne, another bump in the road. The path is full of them. Freeman doesn't ever waver. "Man, the gamut, we've checked off almost every situation throughout this season," Freeman said. "I'm still learn- ing. I hope five years from now or two years from now I come up here and say I'm still learning. There's no book for this. "You can't just have a plan and think that plan is going to fix things. You have to correct things you see with urgency." It helps to have a roster full of players capable of aiding in that effort. These are the ones who helped the most. MVP 1. Michael Mayer Mayer was the centerpiece of Notre Dame's passing offense, and sometimes the only reliable part of it. The junior tight end had 101 targets during the regular season — 55 more than any other Notre Dame player. His 809 yards receiving and 67 catches are more than double the next- closest receiver. He has 9 touchdown catches. No one else has more than 3. That level of reliance on him isn't the best reflection on Notre Dame's passing attack. But it's also an impressive re- flection on Mayer, who produced nearly every week even though he was at the top of opponents' scouting reports. Mayer is more than a receiver, though. He's a strong blocker who was crucial to Notre Dame's rushing attack. He would often lead block or seal a hole for a running back on first down and catch a pass on second or third. His 82.1 Pro Football Focus run-blocking grade is fourth among FBS tight ends with at least 350 such snaps. He was a captain, a magnetic locker room figure and as dedicated as anyone else on the roster Sunday through Friday. 2022 BGI AWARDS Reviewing the top performers from Year 1 of the Marcus Freeman Era Junior tight end Michael Mayer led Notre Dame in targets (101), catches (67), receiving yards (809) and receiving touchdowns (9) in 2022. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER

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