Khalil Mack was supposed to spend the sunny August afternoon chasing Ohio State’s speedy quarterback Braxton Miller around the field, not the other way around.
But when the University of Buffalo linebacker launched himself into the backfield, shed a cut block, and intercepted Miller’s screen pass, it was Miller who was in hot pursuit, as the 6-foot-3-inch, 251-pound Mack rumbled for a 45-yard touchdown.
Shortly after that, Mack returned to the hunt and chased Miller for 2½ sacks, finishing Buffalo’s season-opening 40-20 loss with nine tackles.
It was a breakout performance that sparked a season-long showcase for Mack, who is projected to be a top-five pick in next Thursday’s NFL Draft.
By the end of his senior season, there were no doubts. Mack, an explosive and disruptive pass rusher, was a force to be reckoned with.
“I think what makes him so unique is if you’re running a 3-4 or a 4-3, he fits,” said ESPN analyst and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik.
“He’s thick enough as a defensive end where you’re comfortable enough that you can get him off the edge [in a 4-3], but his speed and his change of direction and his explosion is what lets him play at that level.
“But in a 3-4, you feel you can drop him into coverage. That’s what has accelerated him up the draft board.”
Mack was the Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Year and led the MAC with 10½ sacks, 19 tackles for losses, and 100 total tackles. Mack set the NCAA record for career forced fumbles with 16 and tied the NCAA mark with 75 career tackles for loss. He finished second in voting for the Dick Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker (won by Alabama’s C.J. Mosley).
Tucked away in the MAC, the Buffalo linebacker could have stayed out of the spotlight. But against Ohio State, when eyes were locked on the powerhouse Buckeyes, Mack was able to shine on a national platform.
The Buckeyes underestimated Mack, attacking him with only a single blocker.
“I feel like there were a lot of people watching that game. It helped me tremendously,” Mack said at the NFL Combine in February. “I got a lot of single blocks and it just so happened I played off of a cut block and got an interception.
“I feel it was, sort of, a little disrespect from a schematic approach. But, at the same time, I wanted to make them pay for it.”
Mack is among the most coveted defensive prospects in the draft.
In February, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said he would consider taking Mack, and not South Carolina star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, with the first overall selection.
So how is it that five years ago, after finishing his senior season at Westwood High in Fort Pierce, Fla., with 140 tackles and nine sacks as his team won a district championship, that Mack drew just one Division 1 scholarship offer?
“It’s so hard to separate talent with high school kids,” said Dominik. “How’s your program doing? How’d they finish in the state? Guys can get lost if the program doesn’t have a huge name. Those things happen in recruiting, just as they do in the NFL Draft.
“That’s what happened with Khalil. I think maybe a lot of people thought he had to fill into his body a little bit later, but at the same time, you have to appreciate a guy and where he’s been, and now where he’s being considered by NFL franchises.”
All it took was one team to take a chance on Mack.
Under former Buffalo coach Turner Gill, Mack red-shirted his freshman season in 2009. The next year, Jeff Quinn took over the program and identified Mack as a player with a tremendous competitive edge and an abundance of raw skill.
Working diligently with defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Lou Tepper, Mack began his transformation into an All-American, recording 4½ sacks and 14½ tackles for a loss in 2010.
“I just think the thing that always stands out is his competitiveness, his passion, and the mind-set that he has toward the game,” Quinn said. “He’s a knowledgeable football player. When you think about Khalil as a student of the game, you first think of how much he’s accomplished.”
With Mack at the heart of the Bulls’ defense the last four seasons, the program has steadily improved, garnering more attention each season. In Quinn’s first season, 2010, the Bulls finished 2-10, improving to 3-9 and 4-8 the following two seasons.
By Mack’s senior year, Buffalo went 8-5 and advanced to a bowl for the second time in school history, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Bulls had an average paid attendance of 22,736 per game last season, over 2,000 more than any other school in the conference.
Next Thursday will be a special day for Buffalo, as Mack will likely be the school’s first top-10 selection.
“The dream stays alive through our program, and in 31 years of coaching college football, I’ve been through it many times,” Quinn said. “When you’re out recruiting kids, you’re trying to entice the best talented prospects you see to come here and have the same opportunity Khalil has been blessed with.”