While Notre Dame’s offense didn’t look like a well-oiled machine last weekend in the season opener against Duke, there were still plenty of positives from the Irish’s first outing in over nine months following the craziest off-season any of us will likely ever experience. One of those bright spots was the play of freshman tight end Michael Mayer, or as some internally at Notre Dame are referring to him, “Baby Gronk.”
The NBC announcing crew clued us in to the moniker that the true freshman has picked up since enrolling at Notre Dame following an All-American prep career. It didn’t take long for Notre Dame fans to see how he’s earned that nickname within the program already either, and it wasn’t just because Mayer is wearing Gronk’s #87.
Mayer caught that ball six yards from the first down marker with a Duke defender almost draped on his back as soon as he caught the ball. And Mayer still got the first down and bailed out a not so wise decision from Ian Book to throw so short of the first down marker without any pressure. That’s a grown man play right there – not the kind of play most freshman tight ends can make.
“I think he has great potential,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on Monday when he met the media. “Look, he’s still a freshman. There’s a learning curve there, but I think his athletic ability is pretty evident,” Kelly added.
“He showed that in the way he catches the ball – soft hands, puts the ball away, can run after the catch, can shake a tackle or two. It’s going to be, obviously, fun to watch his growth and development.”
Fun, it will be indeed. Every Notre Dame fan who saw that play immediately wanted to see more of Baby Gronk in this offense. That might be a challenge for Tommy Rees and Kelly given Tommy Tremble is pretty damn good himself, and they also have Brock Wright, the most advanced blocker in the tight end room.
Mayer ended the game with three catches for 38 yards – the same output yardage wise as Tremble on two fewer catches. Notre Dame should be able to leverage the pair often since their games are different at this stage. Tremble probably doesn’t make the first down in the same instance Mayer did – he’s more of a stretch tight end who should be an absolute weapon down the seam. Mayer’s more of the hulking, run through the defense kind of tight end. That is something Notre Dame should be able to use to their advantage this year.
“There’s things in the running game – got knocked down a couple of times – but he’s game,” Kelly said of where Mayer needs to improve. “He got matched up a couple of times in the passing game against (Chris) Rumpf, and I thought he did a pretty darn good job on the backside. (Victor) Dimukeje he had a couple of times 1-on-1 too.”
Notre Dame can live with some growing pains in the blocking department though, if Mayer is going to help the Irish convert third downs like that that they had no business converting. I’d say it’s pretty safe to assume that you’re not going to convert a 3rd and 7 thrown six yards from the line of scrimmage with coverage that tight nine times out of ten.
Kelly added that the performance gave the youngster some confidence as the Irish prepare for their week two contest. “All in all, a great first performance. There’s room to grow there. He knows that, but I know he’s got to be excited, and he’s got some confidence from his first collegiate experience.”
Time will tell if Mayer fully lives up the lofty expectations that come with a nickname like “Baby Gronk”, but one thing is for certain – Notre Dame fans are excited to see more plays from him that back up like the glimpse we got last weekend.