Derrick Mayes: Notre Dame Football’s Most Underrated Receiver?

As is likely the case for sports fans all over the country, I’ve been dealing with my time away from work and sports by watching games and clips from earlier generations. There has been a lot of discussion on Twitter about everyone’s favorite players, all-time teams, etc. and when listing my favorite players on offense I listed the name of Derrick Mayes alongside Will Fuller at receiver.

To be clear, this was simply a list of favorites, not necessarily best, and Mayes’ career ranged from my ages of 11-14, around the time I was really following every game, taping games, re-watching games and all that fun stuff. My first Notre Dame jersey was in fact the Notre Dame #1 from 1994; I wore it to school and during every game that year, including the 17-17 tie at USC that my family attended. I have a thing for him.

Mayes was not particularly big, Pro Football Reference lists him at 6 feet, 205 pounds, and he wasn’t really fast by any measure, he ran a 4.67 at the NFL combine in 1996. Incredibly, despite these physical limitations, he was a big play machine.

As a freshman he averaged 27.2 yards per catch over his 10 receptions that season, famously his first three career receptions all went for touchdowns.

As a sophomore Mayes averaged 21.3 yards per reception and finished his four-year career with 129 catches for 2,512 yards and 22 touchdowns, an average of 19.5 yards per catch. As a comparison, Will Fuller, the most explosive wide receiver perhaps since Rocket, finished his career with a 17.4 yards per reception number. Mayes was not fast, but he was a playmaker.

Catching The Ball In Traffic

If you are a #1 wide receiver who runs a 4.67 and is only 6 feet tall, you better know how go up and get the ball and that was one of Mayes’ best qualities. This doesn’t mean he knew how to out jump people, although he did at times, but he used great timing, body position, and toughness to make the plays he needed to make.

One of my favorites is his 2nd touchdown of the 1995 Orange Bowl, where he literally just tips the ball to himself over Samari Rolle, a future 2nd round pick in the NFL. He knows he’s out of position, he also knows he can’t out jump him, so he does the thing he has to do. A great part is the Florida State safety who gets there late and is so furious he starts punching the air while Mayes just laughs.

Another favorite of mine is this long catch against Washington in 1995. Two men on him, the pass really shouldn’t even be thrown, but he somehow catches the ball with his left hand while protecting his body with the other and brings it in shielding the ball from the ground as he hits the turf. Remarkable concentration, timing on the jump, body control, and hands to make this play.

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(Another fun Mayes tidbit: when he caught the ball on you, he let you know.)

Giving It To Top Teams And Corners

Here are Derrick Mayes’ numbers against the top three teams the played and the corners covering him:

1.) Texas, Bryant Westbrook (picked #5 overall): 6 for 146, one touchdown

2.) Ohio State, Shawn Springs (picked #3 overall): 5 for 125

3.) Florida State, Samari Rolle (46th overall): 6 for 96, two touchdowns, with Tom Krug at quarterback

The man just gave it to these guys, it didn’t matter who it was, he did it against the best the opposition had to offer. That’s the thing about Mayes that sets him apart from the receivers who came later who posted much better numbers from different eras. Who was a better big game receiver than Derrick Mayes?

Something you’ll notice in the clips embedded in the tweet against these corners is he’s getting behind Samari Rolle (4.3 40) and Shawn Springs (4.35) while not possessing the foot speed of those two players. Mayes knew how to manipulate his speed in routes and timed his acceleration perfectly.

Glory Marred By Heartbreak

Mayes had two of the best catches in recent Notre Dame history that would be looked at so much more fondly if the outcomes had turned out a different way.

During the furious Notre Dame comeback against Boston College in 1993, with Notre Dame down 38-32, Kevin McDougal launched a bomb to Mayes who had gotten behind the defense. Mayes had to stop to adjust to the throw and while in mid-air turn his body the other way to get his hands onto the pass, which he of course hauled in. Notre Dame famously went on to take the lead only to get its heart broken moments later.

The very next game in Notre Dame Stadium against Michigan, Mayes makes the touchdown reception himself to take the lead. A leaping grab going across the back of the end zone, where he hurts his ankle to the point where he actually takes on hand off of the ball to hold onto it in mid-air. His heroics were again thwarted moments later by a devilish field goal attempt from the opposition. Nevertheless, Mayes was one of Notre Dame’s best and it was an absolute pleasure to watch him play.

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3 Comments

  1. He and Lake Dawson had the surest hands of any of our receivers. I prefer the Rocket and Will Fuller but those two were terribly underrated because of their lack of speed. I have always said timing and body control are more important than speed when determining the ability of a receiver. As far as being a championship team though, you need a speed receiver to keep the defense honest and get the often needed, home run play.

  2. Could you imagine an receiving core with Derrick Mayes and Randy Moss?!? What a difference that would have been for the entire Notre Dame football program. Would Ron Powlas have then turned out to be the next great Heisman QB at ND that he was expected to be??? Would we have won another national championship or possibly a few more??? These are some things I always think about and wonder, what if?

    1. Yes, Randy Moss would have never dropped passes or punt returns like Emmitt Mosley did against Ohio State in 1995 and 1996 and he would have made us championship contenders in any of the years he played. Lou Holtz said he was the best offensive player he ever saw.

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