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Notre Dame Football

Mick Assaf Looks Back at Notre Dame Career, Friendships & Changes

August 17, 2020
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Mick Assaf might not have found the glory of long touchdown runs at Notre Dame, but he left a legacy of bringing people together.

The Georgia native launched YOKE Gaming in January and will hang up the cleats to pursue his company full-time. 

Assaf saw it all during his time in South Bend. As a freshman, the Irish went 4-8 and three years later, Notre Dame has been a constant in the Top 10. 

What is the most significant difference in the program from 2016? It comes down to two aspects of the program. 

"The biggest difference I could see is how we attacked every day and the level of peer accountability," Assaf told Irish Sports Daily. "Just how serious we took everyday workouts and whatever it may be during the season. 

"There is a different standard everyone is held to and if you don't live up to that standard, you feel like an outsider. I think that's a really good thing. There is a standard of excellence."

Following the 4-8 campaign, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly made drastic changes to his staff and that included the hiring of Director of Football Performance, Matt Balis. 

"It's contagious," Assaf said of Notre Dame's culture. "It starts with Coach Kelly and Coach Balis being the leaders of the program. 

"Coach Balis is someone you see every single day. The most underrated aspect of every college football program is how much time you spend with the strength staff because of the way the rules are set up. Coach Balis is a masterpiece of the way the program has changed, but Coach Kelly brought him in and played a huge role in that as well." 

Rick Kimball/ISD
Mick Assaf

Assaf played in 14 games during his Notre Dame career, including all 13 games in 2019, but his fondest memories on Saturday are likely shared with many fans. 

"Dexter Williams' first carry of the season against Stanford," stated Assaf. "Chris Finke's catch against Michigan. Ian's (Book) run against Virginia Tech. Tony Jones Jr.'s catch and run against USC. Those are probably my four favorite moments." 

While his favorite moments might not feature his own personal success, Assaf took pride and enjoyed the work to make those moments happen. 

"My favorite part was just grinding," Assaf said. "The challenges you face with the guys and coming back to the locker room after a ridiculously hard workout. Those were my favorite parts of being part of the team." 

Many of those moments came on Tuesday and Wednesday during the season. Those are Notre Dame's most important days of the week as the scout team prepares the varsity for Saturday. 

"When you're on scout team, you get to learn a new offense every week," Assaf explained. "One week I'm Nick Chubb and the next week, I'm whoever it might be. 

"You get a new playbook each week. One week we're a triple-option quarterback and the next week, we're running the spread." 

Assaf, from the Atlanta area, also got the chance to play in front of a home crowd last fall when Notre Dame traveled to Georgia. 

The Irish came didn't come out on top, so it doesn't take the top spot of Notre Dame memories, but he'll take it with him for years to come.

"It was cool," said Assaf. "I didn't like losing that game, which made it less fun. I've played in some unbelievably cool venues. I'll always remember the Virginia Tech game more fondly even though I didn't play in it. Winning is just that much more enjoyable than losing. 

"It was cool playing in that stadium. I didn't imagine I would be playing in the stadiums I got to play in." 

Rick Kimball/ISD
Ian Book and Mick Assaf

Those moments at Notre Dame Assaf is most fond of also likely included quarterback Ian Book being by his side.

The two formed an extremely close friendship and Assaf saw firsthand how quickly life changes at Notre Dame. 

"As freshmen, we wouldn't travel with the team, so we would order a pizza and watch the games on Saturday,” Assaf recalled. “I remember watching the games and talking about how it was weird our team is over there and we're in the dorm. 

"It was kind of crazy to be sitting in the dorm with him and the next year was a time he was called on in critical situations. Obviously, not as much as he was in 2018, but to see how quickly it accelerates from sitting on your couch watching games to going in and playing and then to the College Football Playoff the next year.

"He didn't change that much as a person. You can get accelerated so quickly into the fire and I think Ian handled it very well." 

Book is back for his final season, but there are unanswered questions in the running back room entering the 2020 season. 

Running backs coach Lance Taylor will be tested to develop his unit and Assaf believes it will happen. 

"He was a walk-on at Alabama and he's been with so many different types of coaches in his career as a coach," stated Assaf. "He's been with Rex Ryan, (Nick) Saban and he's seen a lot of different styles of coaches and players. Coach Taylor is someone who understands the people he's with and when you understand the players you're coaching, he is able to be such a better coach. 

"We're not all the same and having a coach who can understand your perspective and see where you're coming from is super helpful. I think he's really good at relating to all of us and knows a lot about football having coached wide receivers in the NFL and coaching running backs in college. He just has a good sense of football from the trenches to the secondary, which is pretty unique to have as a coach. 

"He's just enjoyable to be around, which is also good. You want a coach you want to spend time around. It makes it easier to spend more time on football." 

Rick Kimball/ISD
Mick Assaf, Tommy Rees and Ian Book 

Taylor isn't the only offensive assistant that will be tested as first-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees will also be challenged. 

Rees getting promoted to offensive coordinator in the winter was celebrated by many of the players on offense. 

Why? Respect. 

"Tommy is a unique individual," said Assaf. "He's been in the spotlight since he was 18 years old. He played as a freshman at Notre Dame and not a lot of people do that. He's been under fire a lot. He's been in the arena and he's someone who has had to deal with all the pressures of being a Notre Dame starting quarterback, which I've seen through Ian. He's someone that's built for the position.

"He has experience when the stakes are the highest. I think that's valuable to have and he's a brilliant person. I think people were excited because the players have seen how hard he works and how badly he wanted to help lead us and call plays." 

Notre Dame fans will likely remember Assaf for his announcement at The Echoes stating he'd be returning for his senior season following the 2018 campaign or the weekly Mickstape segments during the fall. 

It's fair to say Assaf is fine with being remembered in that light, but he also wants to enhance the walk-on program. 

Assaf had his highs, but there were lows and many of them came sitting in his dorm watching the Irish play on the road.

"The biggest challenge for me as a walk-on was being with the guys every step of the way and then for six games a year, they would go travel and you're kind of told to stay home," explained Assaf. "That was the hardest part for me. You do all the stuff and are invested in the team, but then you watch the game with your friends in the dorm or your family. Hopefully, I can solve that problem one day for the walk-ons at Notre Dame. 

Sitting in his dorm, watching road games drove Assaf crazy, so he took matters into his own hands. 

Assaf started popping up at road games in 2017 and almost got called on at Michigan State when Tony Jones Jr. was a late scratch despite not traveling to East Lansing with the team. 

"I started doing that in my sophomore year," laughed Assaf. "Spirit Airlines was crazy cheap. I found cost-effective ways - I drove to Virginia Tech. I flew out to San Diego on Spirit." 

To fix the issue in the future, Assaf knows it won't involve individual flights and his goal is to find a practical solution to keep the walk-on players involved.

"The solution in the future will have to be more scalable than Spirit Airlines, but I want to be able to help one day," said Assaf. "The goal is for them not to watch Notre Dame football from home because that's tough for someone that pours a lot into the program and is just as invested in the success as anyone else." 

Rick Kimball/ISD
Assaf Family

 

 
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