SOUTH BEND — He changed his last name in the offseason and, purportedly, his attitude during a year in academic exile.
That junior tight end Alizé Mack (formerly Jones) put up a relatively quiet stat line last Saturday against Temple — two catches for 17 yards — during his re-entry into Notre Dame football raised some eyebrows.
But not Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s.
“Here’s a young man who really hadn’t played in a long time,” Kelly said Thursday after practice in preparation for the Saturday night home showdown between No. 24 Notre Dame (1-0) and No. 15 Georgia (1-0). “And we feel like the improvement we’re going to see from week 1 to week 2 is going to be great.
“Just really positive with him, give him a lot of confidence to continue to go out there and be who he is.”
What the 6-foot-5, 251-pound Mack is expected to evolve into someday is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. His blocking has improved enough that he’s effective as a traditional “attached” tight end, lining up next to a tackle. But his ability to split out wide or line up in the slot is still his strong suit. In practice anyway.
“He’s going to be a fine player for us,” said Kelly of the former four-star recruiting prospect from Las Vegas. “I think when we come back later in the season, we’re going to talk about his progression.”
Certainly the tight end group made positive progress in the season-opening 49-16 waxing of Temple. Three of ND’s five tight ends (Nic Weishar, Durham Smythe and Mack) combined for seven catches for 71 yards and a TD.
Freshmen Cole Kmet and Brock Wright did see action as well on Saturday, with Wright lining up as a pseudo-fullback in some short-yardage situations.
Two seasons ago, Mack had 13 of the tight end corps’ 20 catches for the season, the lowest total for the position group since Bob Davie’s final year as the Irish head coach, eight receptions in 2001. Last season, with Mack on the sidelines, the numbers dipped again, to 12 collectively for the tight ends.
So the Irish are already more than halfway to last year’s total after one game.
“(We’re going to) continue to work with him on the little things that are going to make him a great player in this offense,'' Kelly said of Mack. “And that is not only catching the football, but his inline blocking.”
Also on the tight end front, Smythe has been fully cleared for the Georgia game after taking a blow to the head against Temple. He passed through the various stages of concussion protocol on Saturday and early in the week, then got a couple of full-contact practices in on Wednesday and Thursday, per Kelly.
“His player load is up to normally what it would be,” Kelly said, “so there’s no need to (limit) his role on Saturday.”
Win or lose — and Kelly expects to win Saturday — the Irish head coach wasn’t about to let Saturday night’s Georgia matchup be framed as “validation” for all the offseason makeovers and work that went along with it.
“This is another step for us as we continue in our process for this football team to continue to shape themselves,” Kelly said. “It’s too early to talk about validation games. We’ve got a long way to go.
“Our football team will continue to grow, continue to work toward the things that we’ve asked them to work toward, but we’re only in our second game. I like what I saw in the first game. I think we’ll do some good things here in the second game, there’s no question.
“We expect to win the game, but coming out of here — when I stand in front of you and we’ve won the football game — we are not uncorking the balloons in here. We have a long way to go.”
Sea of red or puddles?
Kevin White’s face told the story back in the year 2000. The then-Notre Dame athletic director’s facial tint was every bit as red as the garb worn by roughly 30,000 fans among the 80,232 in Notre Dame Stadium for a matchup between top-ranked Nebraska and the underdog No. 23 Irish.
“When I was on the field before the game, I wish I was colorblind," White said at the time. "Disappointing, very disappointing."
The Cornhusker fan base had been allotted just 4,000 tickets, and yet more than 25,000 more found a way to see in person their team survive in overtime, 27-24.
Seventeen years to the day, Georgia is pushing to produce a sequel. It’s likely the red invasion will be on a smaller scale this time … but how small?
Georgia was allotted 8,400 tickets in the now 77,622-seat capacity Notre Dame Stadium for Saturday night’s first-ever regular-season clash between the Bulldogs and the Irish. To get access to those tickets, fans had to have reached a $67,500 donation threshold lifetime or $10,000 in the past year.
Georgia ticket manager Tim Cearley told Chip Towers of dawgnation.com that the requests for tickets numbered roughly 20,000.
“We take it as a great compliment that a great program like the University of Georgia would want to be part of this Saturday’s game and want to make the trek up here,” Kelly said of the potential for Georgia to exceed its original allotment. “And so it’s exciting for our players as well.
“We know there’s going to be some black and some red in the stands. Could be times two (of the original allotment). We’ll be ready for that. We saw how Texas traveled in their first time up (2015). We’ve seen Nebraska in their first time up here. That won’t affect us. We’ll have a pretty good fan base here too.”
As of Thursday night, the price of a ticket to the game on stubhub.com ranged from $523 each to $12,000, with 317 total available.
• Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, who makes his first collegiate start Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium, is already a hit on social media.
It’s not hard to see why.
His Twitter nickname? JakefromStateFromm, a tip of the cap to the “Jake from State Farm” commercials with the suspicious wife claiming, “Well, she sounds hideous.” And the husband replying, “Well she’s a guy, so.”
• Notre Dame’s commitment to building its defensive line depth through game experience will be tested Saturday with Bulldog elite running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb.
Kelly got some good news on that front this week, when junior Micah Dew-Treadway, held out of the opener with a knee injury, practice and practiced well, potentially adding to that depth.
In the Temple game, the primary backups on the defensive line’s interior were freshmen — Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish. Tagovailoa-Amosa collected three tackles, including one for loss. Hinish had one.
“I think Kurt learned a lot,” Kelly said, “and I think it was a benefit for both of them playing in the first game against Temple, with a pretty good offensive line. They’ll be better for it.
“Their volume was pretty high in terms of the snaps that they took. It was a valuable first-game experience for them. So they’ll continue to be in the mix. There’s no question. We just see them continuously making progress on the field.”