On Friday afternoon, the Notre Dame football tight end room was tasked with filling an All-American-sized hole that Michael Mayer left in the Irish offense. Mayer declared for the 2023 NFL Draft after serving as the offensive crutch for the Irish throughout the 2022 season.
Mayer set several records in his time at Notre Dame. He set the Irish tight end records for career receptions, touchdown receptions and receiving yards. He also owns the single-season records in each of those statistics, along with the single-game receptions record (11 against BYU). Since Mayer arrived on campus, he played in every Irish matchup except the 2021 game against Virginia Tech and over the last two years, started in every single one of his appearances. He caught a pass in every career appearance. The junior was also a captain on the Irish squad in the 2022 season.
His departure left three active names in the tight end room: sophomore Mitchell Evans, freshman Holden Staes and sophomore Davis Sherwood. Injured freshman Eli Raridon and sophomore Kevin Bauman round out the squad currently, and the group will add Cooper Flanagan in 2023. No member of this group has played for the Irish in a heavy receiving role before. In 2022, Mayer notched 67 receptions, while all other tight ends combined for one catch. With Mayer’s presence, the rest either did not see the field much or took up blocking roles.
So, when the Irish found themselves without Mayer for only the second time since his arrival, the tight ends had to figure out how to contribute. On the receiving end, that responsibility fell most often to Evans.
In an offense that threw 33 times, Evans took on a receiving role in addition to his usual blocking responsibilities. The junior tight end was targeted four times. Of the four, he made three receptions for 39 yards and grabbed the game-winning touchdown.
In the first quarter, Evans and Staes both took to the field. Staes was targeted once but sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner fired just too high out of Staes’ reach. Evans also ran a route on that play but a hurry on Buchner didn’t allow his role in the progression to unfold.
Buchner found Evans on the very next play though. On third and fifteen from the Carolina 45, Evans leaked up the middle late in the play. Once he caught the ball from Buchner, Evans then stepped around the first tackle and across the 30 to ensure a first down for 18 yards. These accounted for two of his seven routes in the quarter and the reception would ultimately be his longest of the night. With his 18-yard reception, Evans became Buchner's second completion of the night and one of six receivers the Irish used through the matchup.
For the rest of the quarter, Evans blocked for the Irish, most notably making the key edge-sealing block in a shovel pass to wide receiver Braden Lenzy that converted for an Irish first down.
Second and third quarters
In the second quarter, Evans played in his usual role most effectively. He ran five routes but was never the target. On the way to an Irish field goal, Evans set a key block, enabling Buchner to scramble to the left for 21 yards. While Staes and Sherwood did not see the field in the first half, Evans played 32 of 33 snaps. He ran 12 routes and blocked on his other 20 snaps.
The third quarter started slow for the Irish tight end. While he played 18 snaps, Evans saw no targets and only ran six routes. Still, he continued to be a force to be reckoned with in his blocking, especially at key moments. With 0:37 left in the quarter, Evans lined up behind the left side of the line. As Buchner snapped the ball, Evans bounced to the right and picked up a quick Carolina blitz just long enough for Buchner to get a pass off to Lenzy. Lenzy then turned the corner and snuck inside the pylon. That allowed the Irish to tie the game at 31-31.
It was in the fourth that Evans started to find a bit of a route-running rhythm, and another Irish tight end made a contributive appearance.
South Carolina punted to start the final quarter and it looked like the Irish would have to do the same on their own three-and-out. Enter Davis Sherwood. The sophomore lined up behind the line of scrimmage with the rest of the Irish in punt formation. As Lenzy came around on the sweep, Sherwood took the snap and dished it to Lenzy who took off for 20 yards and the first down. The play kept the Irish drive alive so running back Logan Diggs could take off for a 39-yard score two plays later. Irish head coach Marcus Freeman was proud of the execution from everyone involved.
“We ran a punt earlier in the game,” Freeman said. “We wanted to see the look we would get, and after we ran the punt, [special teams coordinator Brian Mason] said ‘it's there if we want it.’ Right before we went out there, he said ‘it's there.’ I said ‘let's do it.’ We've been practicing that fake all year long … and I wanted to run it. I knew going into the game, if the opportunity presented itself, I wanted to run it. Mase said ‘let's do it here,’ and I said ‘let's go.’ We executed; it was beautifully executed.”
On the 39-yard run from Diggs, Evans contributed again, picking up a block behind the line. The blitz likely would’ve caught Diggs before he reached the line and bounced out right to take off for the touchdown.
From there, Evans continued to represent the tight ends, through to the end of the night. He ran seven routes in the fourth and Buchner attempted to find him on three of those but one ended drastically wrong for the Irish. After running the ball all the way up the field, the Irish opted to switch it up on the Gamecocks and attempt a pass. The play was designed for Evans to be the receiver, the same way it would have been for Mayer. Buchner threw late and into tight coverage though and instead of Evans, the Gamecocks scored on the play via a pick-six. Still, Evans ran the route well but a late-arriving ball, with a defender almost waiting for it, wasn’t going to make it to him.
The final Irish drive featured Evans twice in the receiving game and more in his blocking. He delivered a key block on Diggs’ 17-yard run to open the drive. He caught a five-yard pass just past midfield, allowing the subsequent Estime rush to earn the first down. Two plays later and the Irish were at the Carolina 16. The next play saw Evans’ role look the most like Mayer’s but he made it his own.
In post-game press conferences, both Freeman and Buchner said if the final play of the Irish drive didn’t open for Evans, it would’ve been dead. The goal was to get the ball to Evans, the same way it would have been for Mayer.
“I know someone talked about it earlier how [Jayden Thomas] was open. The thought on that was ‘it's kind of a shot or nothing,’ so if Mitch was covered, throw out of bounds, and if not, give him a chance and try to score a touchdown,” Buchner said.
And it was there. Evans faked a block and then peeled off, almost forgotten about by the Gamecocks’ defense. Buchner waited for that to unfold and then hit a wide-open Evans who practically walked into the end zone. The score ultimately sealed the Irish win.
“That was meant for Mitch, and it unfolded beautifully,” Freeman said. “Again, I think it's a credit to how we were running the ball. Run the ball, run the ball, run the ball in that short yardage situation, be able to leak Mitch out, that's a tough play versus a defense, especially when you're able to run the ball. But it was great execution by these guys.”
Evans played 76 of 80 snaps. Not only did he close the game out for the Irish but he took on full tight end responsibilities for the first time in his two years with the Irish. And, he did it his own way. Blocking remained just as important in his game but he became a receiving option who, along with the rest of the receiving corps, can make up for a lack of Mayer without giving up essential run game and pocket protection.
The final Irish offensive play was ‘meant for Mitch’. And, after a strong effort throughout the Gator Bowl, taking over the starting tight end role at Notre Dame appears to be meant for Mitch as well.
Contact Mannion McGinley at email@example.com.