Rejuvenated Notre Dame TE Alizé Mack emerges from path less traveled

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Alizé Mack had a decision to make.

A little more than a year ago, after Mack was ruled academically ineligible for the 2016 season, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly presented two available paths.

Success, or failure.

The hard way back, or the easy way out.

“This is either going to be the best thing that ever happened to you,” Kelly told him, “or the worst.”

“Coming from coach Kelly, he’s one of those guys where, when he talks, you listen,” Mack said on Thursday. “That was the first few words he had to say to me. That was something I kept in my mind every day.

“I understood that I could have easily been a guy who fell off. But I came here for a reason. I believe I’m the best at what I do, so I have to go out there and show it.”

Last fall, for the first time in his life, Mack wasn’t invited to the show. A year prior, the former four-star recruit caught 13 passes for 190 yards in his freshman season.

Then, nothing. No encore. No highlights. No Saturday in the spotlight.

Just time — to think, to reevaluate. To understand what needed to change.

“Having that transition coming from high school, you come here and you have to grow up and be a man. You can’t fight the system,” Mack said. “That’s one thing I tried to do: fight the system and do things my way. I learned that it’s not about me; it’s about my team.

“I can’t do things my way. I have to follow Notre Dame’s way.”

Specifically, what does that mean?

Without hesitation, Mack launched into a list.

“Taking advantage of tutors, really going to office hours, studying, not procrastinating, putting the phone away, staying in more, not going out and partying,” he said. “It’s all about just understanding what you want.

“I’m glad that it happened, because if it didn’t, it would have definitely happened sooner or later.”

Turns out, it happened sooner — and Mack learned from it. Weekly talks in Kelly’s office helped with the latter.

“I talked to him a lot, actually,” said Mack, whose major is film, television and theater. “Coach Kelly is a wonderful guy. He’s not one of those guys that’s going to jump around and be all outgoing, but he really cares about his players. It showed me a lot.

“I have gained so much respect for him, for him taking his time out of his day to talk to me a lot of times when I needed him. A lot of coaches probably wouldn’t do that. He definitely showed he cared.”

So did Mack — every day, despite his circumstances.

“I’m always an uplifting guy, and one of the biggest things is I wanted my teammates to see that from me,” Mack said. “I thought, if I could come out and be the same guy each and every day regardless of whatever I’m going through, I would slowly earn respect back from my teammates and coaches.”

It was easy to see how much Mack cared on April 22, when the newly eligible 6-foot-5, 251-pound tight end emerged from the north tunnel prior to the annual Blue-Gold Game. He sprinted from one end zone to the other, unleashing a guttural growl, like a freshman — filled with adrenaline — before his first game inside Notre Dame Stadium.

It wasn’t.

But it was.

“I cried … just running out and feeling like you have a fresh start,” Mack said.

In reality, this isn’t a clean slate for Notre Dame’s junior tight end. He doesn’t want it to be. If Kelly never presented him with two paths, he wouldn’t have been forced to fully embrace his purpose.

“I think there was a lot of careless decisions that I made, on and off the field,” Mack said. “Just as a person, I needed to grow up a lot. I definitely did. I think the coaches know that. I think they see that, and I think my teammates see that as well.”

Added Kelly: “He’s really focused on Notre Dame, his schooling and football. He’s been a really focused young man, and I’m really proud of the way he’s handled himself in a year in which he didn’t play. As you know, it’s been ‘ticktock’ for him. He’s been waiting for this opportunity. We’re excited for him.”

They should be. Maturity aside, mindset aside, Mack’s physical prowess still sets him apart.

“He’s a guy that can play detached for us in many multiple sets,” Kelly said. “So you could have two tight ends on the field and one of them could be detached in a receiver set, like an Alizé. That becomes a very difficult formation to match up to. You can’t nickel (coverage) that out, or if you do, good luck in terms of how you fit that with your run fits.

“He presents a lot of matchup problems.”

For tight ends coach and offensive coordinator Chip Long, he presents opportunities, too. So do fellow tight ends Durham Smythe, Nic Weishar, Cole Kmet and Brock Wright. Together, Mack says, “we have the potential to be the best tight end group in the country.”

For now, that’s Mack’s focus. Not the NFL. Not the next party, or the other available path. He’s fixed on school, and Temple.

And when he runs out of the tunnel, he’s going to try not to cry.

“I have so much to prove here,” said Mack, who suffered a mild hamstring injury earlier this month but expects to play in the season opener. “You have a year off and so much time to think. I wonder how good my production would have been last year. Coming into this season, I understand how much is expected. But at the same time, I’m very excited for it. I have no nervousness.

“As far as the pro talk, I’m not thinking about that at all. I have so much I want to accomplish here that that’s not even in my mind right now.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Alizé Mack, right, is brought down by Te'von Coney during the Notre Dame spring football Blue-Gold game Saturday, April 22, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN