Buffalo's Mack gets his chance to showcase on the big stage
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack's steady yet under the radar rise to the ranks of the country's best college football players is that Mack never really intended to play college football at all.
And at Buffalo, of all places?
During his senior year at Westwood High School in Fort Pierce, Fla., Mack was ready to accept an academic scholarship from nearby Indian River Community College to study exercise science. Buthe started really playing football -- he never cracked Westwood's starting lineup until his final year of high school -- and it wasn't long before he realized he was very good at it.
Buffalo was the only Div. I FBS school to offer Mack a scholarship. Liberty, an FCS program, also offered.
Last month, NFL.com's preseason list of the nation's best college football players eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft had Mack at No. 19.
"People don't know about me -- not at all," Mack said. "Maybe a few, but it really doesn't matter. I really don't think people know, and that's something that fires me up."
The word is steadily getting out, and maybe Mack's biggest stage comes Saturday when Buffalo opens the season at No. 2 Ohio State. Earlier this week, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer called Mack "tremendous" and said he's been told that NFL teams see Mack as the No. 2 draft-eligible linebacker heading into the season.
At 6'3, 245, Mack is big and fast and might just be rounding into top form. After redshirting in 2009, he led Buffalo with 4.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in his first year of college football. He had 8 sacks and 21 tackles for loss, both career highs, despite the word being very much out last season.
"It started with a growth spurt," Mack said. "I went from 5'6 to around 6-foot my freshman year of high school, but then I hurt my knee and I really just wanted to play basketball. The football coach (Waides Ashman) begged and begged me not to walk away, and by the time I was a senior I was 6'3 and I had about 140 tackles."
Ashman knew what he was doing. So did the since-departed Buffalo staff. Mack said he heard from Central Florida about grayshirting -- basically delaying his enrollment until the second semester of his freshman year and hoping for a scholarship -- but he never seriously considered it.
He went to Buffalo, spent a year in the weightroom and adjusting to his new surroundings and has taken off from there. Not only is Mack on track to become the highest draft pick in program history, he could make some college football history this season. Mack needs 19 tackles for loss and 3 forced fumbles to become the NCAA's all-time leader in both categories.
"He's very humble but very confident," Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn said. "He'sextremely 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.
And Mack insists people still don't know about him, even with NFL scouts checking in weekly.
"If I'm in a position where I can play in the NFL in the future, I hope I can use that position now to make myself better, make my teammates better, bring positive attention to the program," Mack said. "I'm just looking forward to getting better through the season and taking the rest as it comes.
"I'm my own toughest critic, and believe me -- I have to get a whole lot better."
Those scouts will be watching closely on Saturday as Mack takes on Braxton Miller and an Ohio State offense that could end up being one of the nation's best.
"That's a really special opportunity," Mack said. "No one outside our locker room gives us any chance. We have to go down there and have the confidence it will take to try to win that game."