We continue our “Now Or Never” pre-season series with senior tight end Alize Mack. He arrived in 2015 as one of the jewels of his recruiting class. He was ranked 63rd in the nation by composite, and the #1 tight end in the class. He played for national power house Bishop Gorman High School in Nevada, and was a star for that team. For his high school career, he reeled in 85 catches for 1,725 yards and 26 touchdowns. He was to be the next star in a string of stars at tight end for Notre Dame. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s, on paper, the quintessential matchup nightmare.
His career got of to a promising, although admittedly inconsistent start. He entered his freshman season in 2015 as a backup to junior Durham Smythe, although he had a role as the second tight end. Smythe was lost for the season in week 2 due to a knee injury, and Mack was elevated to starter. While Mack wasn’t a week in and week out contributor as a receiver, he made some big plays his rookie year. He hauled in key, long, fourth quarter receptions against Temple (that led to the game-winning Kizer to Fuller touchdown pass), and against USC. He finished that year with a modest stat line of 13 receptions for 190 yards.
He came out of the 2016 spring practices as one of the stars. Couldn’t be guarded in the red zone and he was tearing up the Irish safeties. The sky was the limit. Then he was suspended for academic shortcomings, and he was shelved for all of 2016. His ascent was going to have to wait a year.
He returned in 2017 with similar expectations and a desire to make up for his suspension the previous season. That didn’t materialize.
He finished finished tied for third on the team in receptions (19) and sixth in yards (166). He caught his lone and first career touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter against Miami. He wasn’t a threat up the seem and was basically a non-factor in the red zone. He was also a low efficiency pass catcher; according to Bill Connelly at footballstudyhall.com, Mack hauled in 48% of his targets and only had a 36% success rate on his 19 receptions. (Success rate measures how often his receptions resulted in either a first down or a touchdown.)
As he moves into his senior season, this is likely his last chance to live up to not only the fans expectations, but also his own. By all accounts Mack was a three and out player coming out of high school, that plan was altered by his suspension, and three and out guys are looking to be picked in the first two rounds of the draft. A big last season could get him there and he is in the perfect situation for it.
Reasons For Optimism
First of all, his offensive coordinator loves tight ends and coaches the position. Mack is going to be on the field all the time and the chances of two tight ends being on the field around 40% of the time this year is really high. The biggest variable for someone with visions of having a big season is opportunity, and Mack will have a big one.
Secondly, improvement for Wimbush means more chances for Mack. Mack might not be the type of guy who raises the level of his quarterback, like Tyler Eifert was able to do for Rees and Golson. He needs his quarterback to put him in good situations. I think Equanimeous St. Brown was the same way. Those guys need their quarterbacks to elevate them. By all accounts, Wimbush looked much better during the spring and subsequently, so did Mack.
Third, Mack is finally going through a normal offseason after completing a full season with the team. This is the first time the transition from one season to the next has been “conventional” for lack of a better way to put it. Coming off of a suspension after sitting and watching the year before, feeling like you need to make up for something, and live up to something, that sort of thing is what some guys thrive off of, and it makes other guys uncomfortable. Mack never seemed comfortable last year, as if he wasn’t totally sure of his place on the team, especially with Smythe still on the roster. Everything was normal this offseason. No drama. No one ahead of him. A bit of normalcy could be good for Mack.
Lastly, it’s a contract year. This is his last shot. There is something about a players senior year, the last bite at the apple that tends to elevate their play. If being a football player is how he wants to make money, now is the time.
Reasons For Pessimism
Mack simply has not been a playmaker for Notre Dame in 26 games in an Irish uniform. And I don’t really consider two receptions in 2015 where he was essentially uncovered to be evidence of being a playmaker. Maybe it was the comfort thing. Maybe he couldn’t get on the same page with Wimbush, but he’s had chances, and it just hasn’t happened.
This play against Temple is a good example. He runs an out and up late in the first half, and Wimbush puts the ball in a position where Mack can go up and make the catch. He clearly sees the safety coming over and he short arms the ball a little bit, and it goes down as a drop.
This isn’t the only time this happened with Mack, and that’s a play someone like Tyler Eifert is making. I’m not so sure Mack suddenly transforms into a guy who is making that play.
I also question his ability to get open out of the slot, where he spends a lot time. He hasn’t shown he can use his size to get open against defensive backs, either by walling them off or just beating them off his route. And since he hasn’t been a good catch the ball in traffic guy, he needs to be open in order to be effective. If he spends more time attached to the line this season, I see that being where he is most effective, because it takes advantage of his ability as a blocker (where he is underrated), and gets him away from smaller defensive backs who are quicker than him, and against linebackers who can’t match his foot speed.
Overall, I see Mack being a positive for this team and putting together the best season of his career. There is a chance, however, he is overshadowed by sophomore tight end Cole Kmet, although their numbers could be similar.