Khalil Mack is entering the NFL with much more fanfare than he began his college career.
The former two-star recruit who got his only scholarship offer from Buffalo coming out of high school, worked his way into a first-round pick this spring and is being compared to some of the best pass-rushing linebackers in the league before he even puts his pads on for the first time.
Oakland Raiders coach Dennis Allen likened Mack to Denver star Von Miller, who had 11 1/2 sacks as a rookie when Allen was defensive coordinator for the Broncos in 2011.
Mack welcomes the high expectations and said his goal is to win the defensive rookie of the year award. But he knows he has a long way to go to reach that level.
"I’m starting at the bottom right now," Mack said. "I’m trying to work my way up. I know I got to get a lot better."
Mack was awfully good in college where he set an NCAA record with 16 forced fumbles and a modern-day record with 75 tackles for loss. He had 10 1/2 sacks, three interceptions, five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries as a senior to vault himself to the No. 5 pick in the draft.
The Raiders targeted him from the start of the draft process and were ecstatic about the versatility he can add to the defense after he lasted until their first-round pick in May.
"Well when he was there on the board and when we picked him, there was definitely some drawing going on, some scribbling going on," defensive coordinator Jason Tarver said. "What’s nice about Khalil is he has size and athletic ability, so that he can do some things on the edges of your defense, both in the run game and in the pass game, with his power, his length and his ability to bend and move."
Mack has quickly impressed his veteran teammates, who marvel at his speed to get around the edge and strength to overpower blockers. But up until now, they have only seen Mack in shorts.
The Raiders get to put on the pads for the first time this season on Sunday, a day Mack has been waiting for ever since he was drafted.
"I think he’s going to be one of the rookies who makes some big plays and helps the team win this year," defensive end LaMarr Woodley said. "I can only imagine what that guy can do when he puts shoulder pads on."
Mack is part of an overhaul on a Raiders defense that allowed the second-most points per game (28.3) in franchise history in 2013. That was part of a second straight four-win season that extended Oakland’s playoff drought to 11 years.
Mack could be the game-changing player that the Raiders have lacked in recent years — a versatile pass-rusher who can get after the quarterback from almost anywhere on the field.
"We’ll see how much he can handle," Allen said. "The more he can handle, the more we’re able to do. He’s an extremely talented player. You have to keep in mind he’s still a young player. Even though he’s very talented, there’s still going to be a little bit of a learning curve."
Mack is also quite inquisitive, often asking veterans such as Justin Tuck for pointers on how to be a better pass rusher. He said Tuck has taught him how to better use his hands as a pass rusher and Woodley has tutored him on how to be more physical when matching up against tight ends.
But Tuck said he doesn’t want to confuse the rookie with too much information too soon.
"There will be a time when he’ll be ready to take it up a notch," Tuck said. "You don’t want to overload him with too much stuff. There are a lot of people in his ear right now, coaches and stuff like that. So right now, just work it through, slow process, it’s a long season."