From No. 1 TE recruit to seventh-round pick, Saints' Alize' Mack embraces fresh start

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Which NFL draft pick best fits his new team? (1:47)

Tedy Bruschi, Darren Woodson and Dan Graziano make their picks for 2019 NFL draft pick that best fits with his new team. (1:47)

METAIRIE, La. -- Alize' Mack's eyes bulged and his voice cracked as he described how excited he was to come to work last week inside the New Orleans Saints' practice facility.

“When I walk in this locker room, I’m like, 'Holy crap.' I mean, even the bathroom is crazy,” said the rookie tight end from Notre Dame, who was drafted in the seventh round.

Mack also admitted that he might get a bit starstruck the first time he meets Drew Brees.

And getting to play in Sean Payton’s offense? Are you kidding? Mack said he was well aware of how the Saints used Jimmy Graham, Benjamin Watson and others long before he ever got the draft call.

“I mean, where else would you rather be as a tight end?” said the supremely athletic 6-foot-4, 249-pounder. Mack said he called his father during a predraft visit to New Orleans and said, “Dad, this feels like home.”

But there is also a deeper reason why Mack is so energized right now.

This is the kind of fresh start he really needed.

As his dad, Anthony Mack, told him: “Son, you’ve got a chance to rewrite everything that was done in college. You’ve got a clean slate, fresh start, clean canvas. Paint your own picture now.”

Mack arrived at Notre Dame in 2015 as one of the top recruits in the country. He was the No. 1-ranked tight end by ESPN, among other outlets, after he helped lead Las Vegas high school powerhouse Bishop Gorman to four state titles.

Needless to say, things did not go according to plan.

Mack struggled in the classroom early and missed his entire sophomore season because of an academic suspension. When he came back, he took some time to adjust to a new offensive scheme. Then he was suspended for the Citrus Bowl at the end of his third season when he neglected to clean the weight room as a punishment for being late to class.

He finished his college career with just 68 catches for 716 yards and four touchdowns.

But everyone from Mack and his dad, to his Notre Dame coaches, to the Saints' evaluators insist that they don’t see Mack as a character concern. He was never in trouble with the law. And Irish offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Chip Long credited Mack for continuing to work and mature each year.

Rookie Alize' Mack is fired up about joining the Saints' offense. "Where else would you want to be as a tight end?" said the seventh-round draft pick from Notre Dame, adding that Drew Brees is a "beast."

Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer ago

Sure enough, Mack’s final season at Notre Dame was his best. He caught 36 passes for 360 yards and three TDs while helping the Irish advance to the college football playoff.

“The biggest thing I told myself is that when I got here [to the NFL], I wanted to rewrite that narrative,” Mack said. “Not be fake -- just be me. Because I know how I am, and my teammates know how I am, and my coaches.

“But at the end of the day, I own up to it. The academics was just coming in as a freshman, as a kid, immature, didn’t have things in order. And I just slacked, you know? I was more so focused on football than in school, didn’t have my priorities straight. And it was on me. Then the bowl game situation, I should’ve just went in and cleaned up the weight room and didn’t. Maybe some other schools it wouldn’t have been as severe as far as the punishment goes. But Notre Dame, the standard is high there. And I’m so glad I went there because it allowed me to grow as a man.

“So those two things always labeled me as a guy who had issues off the field. But my coaches, my teammates for sure, they know I’m not a guy that you’re gonna have a problem with women and DUIs and drugs and -- I’m not that type of dude. For me it was just little mistakes. And it was maturity.”

Long, who arrived at Notre Dame in 2017, has said in the past that it took some time to find the right coaching approach with Mack (one-on-one mentoring worked best). And Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was quoted by The Athletic as saying, “I think maybe Alize’ came in here with the sense of, ‘I’m one-and-done,’ almost like in basketball.”

But Long credited Mack with how dedicated he was throughout 2018, starting right after that bowl game suspension, from his best semester in the classroom to his best summer in the weight room to his best season on the field.

“He had all the reasons that he could’ve left Notre Dame, and he gutted it out. Stayed through the process. And it speaks volumes of him,” Long said. “Because every day was a struggle at Notre Dame. And he fought through it, had a very solid senior year, and he ended up at a great place that’s gonna help him grow. … And not having the pressures of school, I think, is really gonna help him.

“I think his best football is still ahead of him. … I’m excited to see his growth.”

Mack said he now appreciates more than ever why he was warned so often during the recruiting process that “Notre Dame isn’t for everyone.” But after looking back at how far he came, he said he’ll be “forever grateful” that he went there.

“Everyone has to go through adversity at some point in time. The only thing that really matters is how you respond to it,” said Mack, who also had to deal with the death of his grandfather while battling those academic struggles early in college. “And I’m happy to be the person I am today. Because if I wasn’t, then I wouldn’t be here.”

Of course, Mack doesn’t get a free pass along with his new blank canvas.

The Saints drafted him because they believe in the untapped potential. But Mack fell to the seventh round because the entire NFL didn’t see him as a sure thing.

That applies to the football part of it, too, where Mack acknowledges that he has to keep improving as a blocker and a route runner -- both of which have been big focuses for him this offseason.

Mack, however, was especially excited by how the Saints were using him already in rookie minicamp -- lining him up in multiple positions and using his athleticism to stretch the field as a receiver. Mack has time to develop behind newly signed veteran Jared Cook, who is a similar type of athlete and receiver. But Cook is 32 years old, so there is a great long-term opportunity in New Orleans if Mack can take advantage.

Saints tight ends coach Dan Campbell said the team’s early impressions were good at last weekend’s camp.

“I think the kid’s got a little bit of a chip on his shoulder in a good way,” Campbell said. “I think he probably felt like he should’ve gone higher. But I don’t feel like there’s somebody that came in that’s pouting or anything like that. I think he came in and had to go to work.”

Things are a lot different now for Mack, coming to his new team more humbled than hyped. Under the radar instead of in the spotlight.

When asked which of the two suits him better, Mack said the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle because he has never been cocky but he embraces high expectations.

Mack’s father, meanwhile, had an easy answer.

“I think the better situation is getting drafted by the Saints and being able to work with Coach Payton and [that offensive staff]. That’s the better situation,” Anthony Mack said. “Because what better situation can a 22-year-old be in than being with one of the great offensive minds of all time in Coach Payton? What player in their right mind wouldn’t want to be associated with Coach Payton and Drew Brees?

“C’mon, that’s a no-brainer.”