Khalil Mack’s rise from a teenager ready to give up high school football to coveted NFL Draft prospect really started in 2009, when he redshirted at Buffalo and began to both harness and believe in his abilities as a football player.
"I saw myself getting better," Mack said, still remembering the two previous times he’d planned on giving up football altogether. "And I was glad I stuck with it."
Two years into high school, Mack had suffered a knee injury, wanted to commit to playing basketball and had to be talked into playing football at all. He didn’t start a game at Westwood High School in Fort Pierce, Fla., until his senior year, and before any college showed interest in Mack, he thought he’d already made his plans.
He was going to accept an academic scholarship from nearby Indian River Community College and major in exercise science.
"I thought I knew my future," Mack said. "I was ready to go to work."
Few had any idea what was really in store. Despite Mack growing to nearly 6’3 and recording 140 tackles in that lone high school season, Buffalo was the only Div. I FBS school to offer Mack a scholarship. Liberty, an FCS program, also offered. Central Florida coaches had presented the idea of Mack grayshirting — enrolling, paying his own way and waiting a year for a scholarship — but those talks never materialized.
So Mack went to Buffalo as a lanky, barely 210-pound linebacker and lifted his way into a 240-plus pound, multi-positional force, and from there he made history. He’s now Div. I college football’s all-time leader in forced fumbles and tackles for loss.
Thursday night, he’s almost certainly going to be a top 10 pick in the NFL Draft — he’ll be at the draft in New York City, invited by the league — and could be a top three selection. Mack’s been touted by NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock as the draft’s best player and a potential No. 1 overall choice.
"Mike Mayock is the man," Mack said at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. "I want to prove him right."
Though his rise has been a fast and unlikely one — Buffalo’s previous highest draft pick was a fourth-round tackle 17 years ago — Mack has long been a known commodity in scouting circles. NFL.com rated him the 19th best draft prospect coming into the 2013 season, and he added to his personal highlight reel in last fall’s season opener at Ohio State when he recorded 9 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss and returned an interception 45 yards for a touchdown.
"His stock in the draft went up a little bit after playing us," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. "He manhandled some guys."
At least two NFL teams shifted scouting schedules and sent scouts to Waco the next week for Buffalo’s game against Baylor.
Mack went on to finish the 2013 season with 10.5 sacks and had 28.5 in his career. As recently as the middle of last season, he was still saying that most football fans didn’t know about him — and wasn’t shy in saying that thought drove him.
"Khalil is very humble but very confident," Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn said. "He’s extremely competitive, very instinctive. He’s been blessed with a lot of gifts by God but he’s developed a lot of his gifts, too. He has the defensive mentality. He wants to get people behind the line of scrimmage. He’s a great teammate, the kind of guy who makes his others better."
There are strokes of coaching brilliance — and there are strokes of coaching luck. Quinn inherited Mack when he got the Buffalo job after the 2009 season, and he acknowledges that Mack is very much responsible for his own climb.
"Khalil (took) tremendous responsibility…he’s worked year round with our strength coach and has worked hard with (defensive coordinator Lou Tepper) learning the game and being more sound fundamentally," Quinn said. "We’re glad nobody else took him."
Thursday night, some NFL team gets to take him. Maybe even the Houston Texans at No. 1.
"He’s explosive off the edge, he’s tough, he’s twitchy, he’s got a little edge to him," Mayock said. "When I watch him on tape, I feel like he’s pissed off at the world, and I like that. Then you put on a tape, and he drops into coverage like a safety, reads the quarterback’s eyes, undercuts a route and has a one-handed interception.
"He can play anywhere."
The world of exercise science can wait. It simply took a while for anyone — Mack included — to realize that.