You hear the moniker “Tight End U” thrown around a lot when it comes to Notre Dame. That’s for good reason considering the names that have come through the Irish tight end room (Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Tory Niklas, etc.) and the number of draft picks in recent years (eight in the Brian Kelly era).
When it comes to recruiting and developing the tight end position, Notre Dame and a select few other programs are playing chess while most are playing checkers. So here is Notre Dame’s 2022 tight end cohort presented as pieces from chess, the ultimate strategy game.
No. 87 Michael Mayer — Queen
If there were a chess piece more powerful and valuable than the queen, Mayer might even surpass that in terms of ability and importance. No matter his exclusion from the Mackey Award’s four finalists last season. Anyone with a pair of eyes should come to the conclusion that Mayer was one of the two best tight ends in college football in 2021. (For what it’s worth, the other tight end in that discussion, Georgia’s Brock Bowers, was also excluded from the Mackey Award finalists).
Mayer’s 2021 marks of 71 receptions, 840 yards and seven touchdowns were all single-season records for a Notre Dame tight end. After just two seasons he ranks third in Notre Dame history for career receptions (113) and yards (1290) by a tight end. And he enters the 2022 season on preseason watchlists for:
- The Rotary Lombardi Award, given to the best lineman in college football
- The Biletnikoff Award, given to the best receiver in college football
- Both the Walter Camp and Maxwell awards, each given to the best player in college football (as voted on by various coaches, sports information directors, NCAA officials and media members)
- And would you look at that? The Mackey Award, given to the best tight end in college football
Notre Dame’s success on offense in 2022 begins and ends with Mayer. He truly is an invaluable piece for offensive coordinator Tommy Rees, and Irish fans should get as much enjoyment as possible out of his last season in South Bend before he heads to the pros.
No. 84 Kevin Bauman — Rook
A former four-star recruit out of New Jersey, Bauman has had a slow start to his Irish career: just two receptions for 15 yards in nine appearances. A broken leg last season is partially to blame in that regard. But the sheer amount of talent ahead of him the past two years (see: Mayer, Tommy Tremble, Brock Wright and George Takacs) is the main reason the redshirt sophomore has been relegated to an apparent role as a blocking tight end.
Still, it’s worth mentioning that Rees had enough confidence in Bauman as a true freshman to plug him into 14 personnel on the goal line against Alabama in the 2020 Rose Bowl. Having a dependable blocker to tank defenders on the edge is critical, even if a largely thankless job. So Bauman is the tank of chess pieces: a rook.
Bauman will have to wait until Mayer is off to the NFL next season to really have a chance to shine. Even then, it’s far from a guarantee that he will be the No. 1 tight end with guys like Mitchell Evans, Cane Berrong and two talented freshmen nipping at his heels. But Bauman has been in the program longer than anyone else at the position aside from his classmate Mayer, and that certainly counts for something.
No. 88 Mitchell Evans—Bishop
Evans won’t be seeing the field for a while following surgery on July 14th to repair a fifth metatarsal break in his foot. The former three-star recruit found himself getting decent playing time last year when Bauman’s broken leg and Cane Berrong’s torn ACL elevated him to the No. 3 tight end spots. Evans had two catches for 21 yards while playing in all 13 games on the season.
Like Bauman, Evans is a bit of a tank himself at 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds, but that also makes him a big target. Plus, his background as a high school quarterback means he’s a more well-rounded athlete than his measurables may indicate. Heck, he already has more career yards than Bauman, so Evans might have been the No. 2 tight end in terms of targets this season if he were fully healthy. And a more pass catching oriented tight end is more of a bishop than a tank.
In such a talented tight end room, it’s easy to envision Evans falling behind as the season progresses with him on the sideline. And he probably won’t be rushed back since the Irish aren’t exactly wanting for tight ends and rushing back from a fifth metatarsal break can usually lead to breaking the same bone all over again (see: former Irish receiver Kevin Austin and former hoops stars Bonzie Colson). So expect to see more of Evans in 2023 when he’s back to full health and Mayer’s departure leaves a void at the No. 1 spot.
No. 80 Cane Berrong — Knight
In the same recruiting class as Evans, Berrong was a four-star recruit from Georgia who committed to Notre Dame all the way back in June of 2019. He spent his freshman season largely watching from the sideline as he appeared in three games (Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Virginia Tech) before tearing his ACL.
At 6-foot-3 and around 240 pounds, Berrong appears to be a similar type of hybrid player as former Irish tight end Tommy Tremble. He could be a receiving option or mobile lead blocker depending on the scenario, and that versatility lends itself to a knight.
It’s unclear just where Berrong is in the pecking order coming off his injury and with injuries to those around him. Depending on the kind of offense Rees elects to pursue, Berrong could make several appearances in short yardage 13 and 14 personnel packages. He could also possibly work as a flex wide receiver option with Notre Dame’s lack of depth at that position. With little usage to date, Berrong’s role will be revealed on the field this fall.
No. 9 Eli Raridon & No. 85 Holden Staes — Pawns
Don’t take this as a slight against Raridon and Staes. It’s more of a commentary on the fact they’re freshmen who have yet to take a college snap, so the way they’ll be used in Notre Dame’s offense is uncertain.
The thing about pawns is that they may have the lowest point value of any chess piece, but they also have the most flexibility. Get a pawn to the final rank on the board and you can promote it to any piece. So how Rees and position coach Gerad Parker elect to plug in and develop the freshman tight ends will be interesting to see.
Raridon was elevated to four-star status after blowing up late in the recruiting cycle, but the Irish stole him from in-state Iowa when he was still just a three-star. He is the son of former Irish offensive lineman and long snapper Scott Raridon Jr. (2002-2006). If that wasn’t enough of a legacy, he’s also the grandson of Scott Raridon Sr., Notre Dame’s strength and conditioning coach when they won their last national championship in 1988.
With Notre Dame’s wide receiver issues, there’s been talk that Raridon might get some early playing time as a flex receiver. (I’d say that would make him a bishop). Then a torn ACL during his high school basketball season seemed to sideline him for the start of his freshman year. But Raridon has made an incredible recovery and should be close to 100% by the season opener.
The fact Raridon didn’t enroll early and the time he missed with injury may have set him back. The simple truth, however, is that the Irish need pass catchers to emerge, so don’t be surprised if Raridon sees a decent amount of playing time as a true freshman.
As for Staes, he’s another tight end in that Tommy Tremble mold, standing 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. Also coming from Georgia but rated even higher than Tremble, Staes picked the Irish over Penn State and Alabama, among others.
As with Berrong, Raridon and Staes’ roles in 2022 could be appreciable or nonexistent depending on the health of those ahead of him and what the offense prioritises. But both freshmen are tantalizing prospects down the road regardless of their contributions this fall.