Physicality giving Notre Dame TE Alizé Mack a better chance at fulfilling potential

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Alizé Mack was only trying to do his job.

A few days later, the Notre Dame tight end found himself in the middle of a debate about “bad football.”

In the process of praising Mack for the best game of his Irish career, head coach Brian Kelly took exception to a strategy Vanderbilt used against Mack.

When Mack was trying to perform specific blocks on the outside, Vanderbilt defenders were crashing into his legs. Rather than trying to fight through or around Mack, it appeared the Commodores were just trying to take him down. Kelly described the plays as malicious cuts.

“It’s legal, but it’s bad football,” Kelly said Tuesday. “It’s just bad football. and I have no problem saying it. You know, we’re so concerned about frontal cuts and we got a defensive end chopping him on every play. and he hung in there every play, was digging him out, blocking in line.”

Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason wasn’t having any of it.

“With Brian Kelly, Brian Kelly can take his comments and keep it moving,” Mason said after accusing the Irish of their own bad football. “If he’s got something personal with me, he can come see me.”

But what did Mack think of the Vanderbilt strategy?

“It’s part of the game,” Mack said. “It’s one of those things that they can do it. It’s legal. It’s just one of those things that sucks, but you have to deal with it.”

That doesn’t mean Mack was expecting it. On the first instance, Mack was hit hard enough that he flipped over outside linebacker Charles Wright. Because Mack had to run behind the line of scrimmage from one side of the offensive line to the other side, he had a lot of momentum going in one direction.

The play shook up Mack. He was slow to get up after the play and didn’t return to the field for the rest of the series.

“I don’t think it was anything malicious,” Mack said.

The second time Vanderbilt tried the tactic, Notre Dame exposed it. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush kept the ball on the read option and ran right outside of Mack and the defender taking him down. The play resulted in an easy 10 yards for Wimbush.

“He got a first (down), didn’t he?” Mack said. “Sometimes you have to take one for the team. I’m just glad I’m healthy.”

Growth as blocker

After Kelly detoured his praise about Mack into a commentary on Vanderbilt’s cutting strategy, he returned to explaining why he was so proud of the way the senior tight end played.

“None of the stuff that people see. But that’s what gets you to the next level,” Kelly said. “Not all this ‘Throw me the ball,’ catch the ball. Certainly we know his physical ability of catching the football, but I’ll give that film to any NFL scout and show him what he can do. That was the best game he’s played since he’s been here.”

That’s high praise for a former four-star recruit who has yet to maximize his potential. 247Sports pegged Mack as the No. 1 tight end in the 2015 class. His career trajectory took a turn when he was forced to sit out the 2016 season with an academic suspension.

But the promise of what could be has never faded with Mack. He’s been named to the preseason Mackey Award watch list, which recognizes the top collegiate tight ends, for three consecutive years despite catching only 32 passes for 356 yards and one touchdown in his first three years at Notre Dame.

Better days should be ahead for the 6-foot-5, 247-pound Mack as a receiver, though it’s his growth as a blocker that’s been his most notable improvement to start the season. He knows that’s why Kelly spoke so highly of his performance against Vanderbilt.

“I was more physical in the game,” Mack said. “It’s going out there and being confident in what you’re doing but also not playing timid. Just playing physical ball. (Offensive coordinator and tight ends) coach (Chip) Long always says, ‘When you get your hat placement, you have your footwork and you come off the ball, you can dominate guys.’”

Mack’s development as a blocker can be easily noticed. He’s routinely asked to take on defenders by himself and can move them out of the way when he’s executing correctly. Mack also has improved his technique in pass protection.

Even Mack admits he’s come a long way.

“Blocking was the biggest thing I wanted to make sure I improved on,” Mack said. “I know that in order for me to — God willing — get to the next level, I need to be able to have that in my repertoire. Just getting better and better. I need to clean up my footwork a little bit, but that’s the blessing of having another week of preparation.”

With Long running the offense, the tight end position has been emphasized. The Irish aren’t afraid to play two or more tight ends at a time. But in order to do that, the position group has to embrace the blocking role.

“It’s demanded. That’s what comes with this position especially in this offense,” Mack said. “We play a big role, the tight ends. You have to commit to wanting to be a blocker and also be a route runner as well.”

The physicality, even if painful at times, helps Mack concentrate. Maybe that’s why he played so well against Vanderbilt.

“The more that you’re out there and the more that you’re involved and the hits that you take, you forget about the crowd,” Mack said. “You forget about all the things going on. You start to lock in to your assignment. Your head’s on a swivel. It was fun. That was a really fun game.”

More left for Mack

Mack, who’s on pace to graduate in May, was asked before the season if he plans to return for a fifth year at Notre Dame.

He shrugged off the question by saying he would see what happens at the end of the year. That was too far into the future for Mack to forecast in part because he’d been so focused on wiping away a disappointing 2017 season.

“I don’t think I prepared myself well enough going into games, watching film,” Mack said in August of his junior season. “My effort out on the field, I don’t think I gave my all. This year I’m focusing more on my team, more on my craft and hopefully I can show the work that I put in when September comes.”

In the 2018 season opener, Mack showed a flash of his talent against Michigan. He hauled in a 26-yard pass from quarterback Brandon Wimbush before getting hit in the head by safety Josh Metellus. Mack, who has battled a tendency to drop passes, held onto the ball to ignite a drive that ended in a touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Finke. Metellus was ejected for a targeting penalty, and Finke caught the touchdown over Michigan’s safety replacement.

In the Michigan game, Mack and fellow tight end Cole Kmet were both on the field for the entirety of the first drive. Those two tight end looks have decreased while Kmet recovers from an ankle injury suffered against Ball State.

“Hopefully, he can get back as soon as possible,” Mack said. “That’s my guy. But the same is expected. It’s next man in. Nic Weishar’s done a great job of filling in that role.”

One specific alignment Notre Dame utilized when Kmet was healthy was a wide receiver and tight end combination of Miles Boykin, Chase Claypool, Mack and Kmet. All four of those targets are at least 6-4.

“As we get our offense going and we start to smooth things out, it’s helpful. You have two big threats out there as targets,” Mack said of himself and Kmet. “Then you add Chase Claypool and you add Miles Boykin, once you get the pass game going, it’s scary. It’s dangerous.”

If Ian Book receives more playing time at quarterback, as has been speculated this week, Mack could be a beneficiary. Mack’s season high in catches last year came in the North Carolina game in Book’s only start. Before the season, Mack couldn’t identify a reason why he was able to make more catches (six for 38 yards) in that UNC matchup.

Mack defaulted into crediting his preparation that week. Whether Mack has a better chemistry with Book than Wimbush remains to be seen. Mack caught three passes for 25 yards from Wimbush last Saturday. He spent countless throwing sessions working with Wimbush and Book during the offseason.

“This offseason, coach Long really made a conscious effort to make sure that we were out there taking everything serious and holding ourselves accountable,” Mack said in August. “If we want to win a national championship here, we had to put the work in.”

The work didn’t include preparing for defenders diving at his knees, but Mack’s already made adjustments in case any other team wants to borrow Vanderbilt’s technique. Long can help him out with some creative play calling too.

“When you know you have guys that are squeezing on the edge or they’re chopping on the edge, you know that we can run a play where we dodge him or we can run a play-action pass to slip out,” Mack said. “There are things that you can do to avoid those.”

Mack’s ready for the job regardless. He has potential left to fulfill.

Notre Dame’s Alizé Mack (86) makes a catch during the Michigan at Notre Dame NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.
Notre Dame tight end Alizé Mack, right, is tackled by Vanderbilt linebacker Jordan Griffin during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.
Michigan defensive lineman Rashan Gary (3) sheds the block of Notre Dame tight end Alizé Mack (86) in the first half of an NCAA football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018.