Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Buffalo's Khalil Mack is a name to remember

Once anonymous and unheralded, the dominant linebacker is projected to be a high NFL pick.

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comDecember 21, 2013 

A STAR AT ANY LEVEL Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack is No. 4 this week on NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper’s Big Board at ESPN.com. Writes Kiper: “He’ll get dinged on competition level, but roll the tape when he played Ohio State and it’s not hard to pick out the best player on the field. You really have to watch him play and see how he lines up all over the field and can do everything. He is versatile and capable of rushing the passer with quickness and power, dropping into coverage, shedding tackles and making plays in the open field. He uses proper leverage to take on blocks and drive people back and uses quickness and strong hands to shed. Plays with a great motor, but smart.”

HARRY SCULL JR. — The Buffalo News

  • NFL first-round picks in Boise bowl games

    Chris Long, DE, Virginia, 2004 (No. 2 pick, 2008)

    Matt Ryan, QB, Boston College, 2005 (No. 3, 2008)

    Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland, 2008 (No. 7, 2009)

    B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College, 2005 (No. 9, 2009)

    Ryan Clady, OT, Boise State, 2005 (No. 12, 2008)

    Ryan Mathews, RB, Fresno State, 2007 (No. 12, 2010)

    Derrick Morgan, DE, Georgia Tech, 2007 (No. 16, 2010)

    Gosder Cherlius, OT, Boston College, 2005 (No. 17, 2008)

    Mike Iupati, OG, Idaho, 2009 (No. 17, 2010)

    Brandon Merriweather, S, Miami, 2006 (No. 24, 2007)

    Jon Beason, LB, Miami, 2006 (No. 25, 2007)

    Heath Miller, TE, Virginia, 2004 (No. 30, 2005)

    Greg Olsen, TE, Miami, 2006 (No. 31, 2007)

    Kenny Phillips, S, Miami, 2006 (No. 31, 2008)

    Logan Mankins, OG, Fresno State, 2004 (No. 32, 2005)

    Mathias Kiwanuka, DE, Boston College, 2005 (No. 32, 2006)

— Five years ago, no one wanted Khalil Mack.

Now no one can figure out how to block him.

Mack’s rise from unheralded and (basically) unrecruited high school senior to a high first-round NFL Draft prospect will continue Saturday when Buffalo plays San Diego State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at Bronco Stadium.

All eyes will be on No. 46, who slipped under the radar of recruiting services and college coaches as a senior in Fort Pierce, Fla. He ended up at Buffalo when an assistant coach at Liberty, the only school to offer him a scholarship, was hired by former Bulls coach Turner Gill.

“I had zero stars. I didn’t let that disturb me,” Mack said. “I kept working hard.”

He no longer slips under anyone’s radar.

It took just eight plays of film from Buffalo’s game against Ohio State before San Diego State coach Rocky Long had to find out more about the guy making every tackle.

“We went and checked who he was, what his name was. They’re playing against a great football team, and he is so disruptive,” Long said.

The 6-foot-3, 248-pound Mack had nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception he returned 45 yards for a touchdown, outrunning Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller to the end zone.

“Ohio State tried to run at him and quite candidly they were embarrassed,” Buffalo defensive coordinator Lou Tepper said. “He was the best player on the field.”

Since that game, which was the Bulls’ season opener, teams have been far less willing to challenge Mack. Most just run away from his side of the field. Western Michigan triple-teamed him 17 times. Eastern Michigan, Mack said, used four players to block him on one play — a tight end crashing from the slot, a tackle, a guard and a running back.

“That was the most bizarre thing,” Mack said.

That’s how an All-American linebacker gets treated.

Mack finished second in voting for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation’s top college linebacker, after recording 94 tackles, including 19 for loss and 10.5 sacks this season. He has three interceptions, six pass breakups, five forced fumbles and countless game plans disrupted.

“If you watched any of our games, you see the terror in the QB’s eyes,” Buffalo quarterback Joe Licata said. “I have to line up against him every day in practice and I don’t like doing that.”

Said Buffalo defensive back Najja Johnson: “He makes our jobs a lot easier. When he is in their face 24-7, quarterbacks tend to make bad decisions and give us Christmas gifts.”

A two-time All-MAC first-team selection, Mack is the NCAA’s all-time leader in forced fumbles (16) and tied for the record in tackles for loss (75). He forced three fumbles in a win over Miami (Ohio).

“It’s uncanny,” Tepper said of Mack’s ability to force fumbles. “The game slows down for him when he gets close to the ball. You don’t want to have the ball away from your body when you’re near him.”

Mack credits it all to hard work. Hard work in the weight room that took him from 205 pounds as a high school senior to his rock-solid current 238 pounds. Hard work on the practice field to become a complete linebacker, one capable of rushing the passer and dropping back into pass coverage. Hard work in the film room to learn the defense and how to defeat the tricks offenses use against him.

Mack needs no reminder of how far he has come. He wears one each day at practice.

Mack was given No. 46 as a freshman at Buffalo. He chose not to switch to a more celebrated linebacker number — like 50 or 51 or 56 — because EA Sports, in its player rankings for its NCAA video game, had assigned Mack a grade of 46 on a scale of 40 to 99.

“He’s humble. You would never guess coaching him that he’s such an outstanding player,” said Tepper, a veteran coach who has coached 25 professional linebackers and three Butkus Award winners. “He’s certainly one of the best players I’ve ever had.”

The NFL is eager to have him.

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Mack at No. 4 on his big board. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay pegged Mack as the No. 8 pick to Minnesota in his first mock draft. Scouts Inc. lists Mack as the No. 5 player in the draft, including potential underclassmen. Tepper said Mack is versatile enough to play any linebacker spot in the NFL, a rarity.

Mack has heard the chatter. Having climbed this high, he wants to keep going.

“Why not ... No. 1?” Mack said.

Who is going to stop him?

Few have been able to so far.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444, Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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