Notebook: Notre Dame TE Alizé Mack makes presence felt in return to action
SOUTH BEND — Alizé Mack emerged from the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel for the first time, flaunting a new name and renewed conviction, and sprinted from one end zone to the other as fans filed into the sun-drenched seats.
The junior tight end unleashed a mighty howl, a full year of emotion pouring out in a guttural wave.
A week after having his last name legally changed from “Jones” to “Mack,” and several months removed from a season lost to academic ineligibility, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound behemoth reveled in a long-awaited return.
“A very emotional day for me man,” Mack tweeted following the Gold team’s 27-14 victory in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “Felt really good to be back out there in front of the best fan base in the country. Keep riding (with) us”.
It didn’t take long for Mack to prove his worth.
On the fourth play of Saturday’s scrimmage, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush unfurled a rope across the middle, which Mack tipped to himself, then hauled in behind a helpless defender for a 28-yard game. It was perhaps the most difficult catch on display for either team, and a reminder of what the inconsistent 2016 Irish offense may have been missing.
Mack finished with a team-high five catches for 46 yards, making a fluid transition from the sideline back to the spotlight.
Raving about the Rover
Drue Tranquill didn’t look out of place.
Notre Dame’s 6-2, 230-pound senior started with the No. 1 defense at first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s hybrid Rover position on Saturday, streaking off the edge and into the backfield for a pair of tackles for loss.
“It's been a good fit all spring,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Tranquill. “He's a plus player there for us. He really can impact what's happening from snap to snap. He's a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”
Tranquill did plenty of good on Saturday, finishing with four tackles and the aforementioned tackles for loss in his Gold squad’s convincing victory.
It was the culmination of a transformative spring for both Tranquill and the Irish defense.
“Our coaches have done an incredible job this spring of just kind of integrating me into that position, allowing me to get a feel for linebacker movements,” said Tranquill, who recorded 79 tackles as a strong safety last season. “I’ve played my previous years at safety, so they’ve taken me this spring and allowed me to develop my linebacker movements so that I’ll have those in fall and be able to play both positions.
“But I love the Rover position. It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass and do a lot of different things.”
Beyond Tranquill’s disruptive flashes, the Notre Dame defense combined for 18 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and two interceptions on Saturday.
“I think a lot of guys are a lot more confident than they were in previous years,” Tranquill said. “A lot of guys are playing with passion and energy and a love for the game that seemed at times lost last year.”
Jalen Elliott is hoping that a fall in the flames has made him stronger.
In essence, that’s what last season was. The 6-1, 208-pound safety remembers his college debut at Texas, an avalanche of schemes and 100,000 screams as the Irish fell in overtime.
“It was an unbelievable atmosphere and also there was so much going through my mind, so much flying around,” Elliott said. “I just didn’t want (the loss) to be on me, really. I didn’t want to let the defense down.”
On Saturday, Elliott picked the Gold squad’s defense up. Fellow safety Nick Coleman tipped a pass across the middle intended for tight end Alizé Mack, and Elliott picked it out of the air before zigging and zagging for a 28-yard return.
After enduring a freshman season that included eight losses and two defensive coordinators, Elliott — who had 14 tackles in 2016 and seven more on Saturday — is ready to turn the page.
“Man, I feel a lot more comfortable … definitely,” Elliott said. “As you see it more, as you rep it more, it becomes more comfortable.”
But that doesn’t mean Elliott’s game is complete. The sophomore strong safety has benefited from defensive coordinator and safeties coach Mike Elko’s emphasis on tackling and ball disruption. He made a leap from 190 pounds to 208 pounds in director of football performance Matt Balis’ weight room, too.
Safety remains one of the more scrutinized positions in Notre Dame’s new-look defense, however, and that won’t change anytime soon. There’s plenty of talent, but little returning production.
The little experience Elliott does have should help him in the years to come.
“You can practice, practice, practice,” Elliott said. “But until you get on the field in the fire that we were in last year, there’s nothing that can compare to that.”
On Saturday, Notre Dame unveiled not just a team, or a couple new schemes, but a new-look stadium.
Indeed, Notre Dame Stadium has a new visitors tunnel, new brick in the traditional north tunnel, new signs, new blue bleachers and a massive video board that’s not-quite-complete.
And while the Campus Crossroads renovations won’t be unveiled in full until the fall, Kelly emphasized that their digs can’t be the only thing that keeps improving.
“All of the renovations look tremendous,” Kelly said. “Particularly the north end zone, what they have done down there, it's going to be a great feel for us to come out of that tunnel the way it's put together. The new locker room obviously gives you a great feel. But as I told our guys, there has to be a great sense of pride when you walk into that stadium and that pride has to carry over in your preparation and being focused and locked in every time we come into the stadium.
“It's a stadium that is rich in tradition and our guys need to know that they play football at the University of Notre Dame and it's just a great, great thing that they have and (they need to) appreciate it.”
Kohler can kick
Notre Dame’s starting placekicker, junior Justin Yoon, sat out spring practice — including the Blue-Gold scrimmage — while recovering from a leg injury.
He wasn’t missed on Saturday.
Without Yoon or incoming freshman Jonathan Doerer, who will arrive in June, senior walk-on Sam Kohler connected on both of his field goal attempts, which came from 42 and 46 yards.
“Sam's been solid. He really has,” Kelly said. “I like the way he prepares and works at it. You know, we've got more competition coming in, so it will be a good situation. We'll have a real good competition there (in the fall).”