It wasn’t long ago that Khalil Mack, a 6-foot-3, 251-pound outside linebacker, was a virtual unknown. Coming out of Westwood High School in Fort Pierce, Florida, he had one scholarship offer, to the University of Buffalo, where he trekked nearly 1,300 miles to quietly hone his talents.
Fast forward to Tuesday, and he’ll need no introduction. The scouts, coaches and GMs on-hand for UB’s pro day will all be there to see him, to bear witness to the pass rushing moves that have elevated his status into possibly a top-10, even a top-five pick in May’s NFL Draft.
The hype has already arrived, long before Mack even takes the practice field.
“He’s one of the best two or three players in this draft,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said in an interview with KFAN in Minneapolis last month. “I’m going to tell you right now, I’d take him with the first pick.”
But it wasn’t always that way for Mack. It took some convincing from future NFL players James Starks and Naaman Roosevelt that he had what it took to be great.
“The first couple of days I got to Buffalo [they told me] ‘You’re good, you’re good,'” Mack recalled. “I didn’t want to settle for that compliment. I wanted to rise above it and to prove them to be right.”
Then there was the infamous video game snub, which turned out to be one of the biggest motivating factors during his college career and helped decide his jersey number.
“The NCAA game, the first one that came out that I was on, I was rated a 46 overall [and] I had a 37 rating [for] speed,” Mack said at the NFL Scouting Combine last month in Indianapolis. “It was a slap in the face, man, because I knew deep down in my heart I was better than a 46. And it just so happened, I was already [No.] 46, and I kept the number.”
He kept No. 46 throughout his four years and thrived, tying an NCAA-record 75 tackles for a loss and setting a new record for forced fumbles with 16. In his senior season alone, he recorded 10.5 sacks, 19 tackles for losses, three interceptions (including two pick-6s), five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
Against Ohio State, Mack registered nine tackles, 2½ sacks and a 45-yard interception returned for a touchdown, showing that he need not suit up for a powerhouse program to get noticed. Mayock gushed, “He dominate[d] Ohio State like nobody I’ve ever seen dominate them.”
His head-turning performance at the combine only reaffirmed what the taped already showed — Mack is one of the most dynamic athletes in this year’s draft class.
He clocked an official 4.65 in the 40-yard dash and a 4.18 in the 20-yard shuttle. He also recorded a 40.0 inch vertical and a 128.0-inch broad jump, finishing as a top performer in four of his six events.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Light took notice. “I think he’s one of those unique players that can fit any scheme. He’s a very interesting guy. He’s a player that has speed along with power and not just one or the other and when you have that combination of both, you’re a pretty good player,” Light said at the combine.
It’s made the long journey worth it, although the work is far from over, and he knows that.
“Everybody asks me, ‘Florida to Buffalo — why?’ But it was God’s will. I feel like He placed me there and I’m in the position I’m in because of Him,” Mack said, adding, “Hard work pays off. It’s been a grind. I didn’t stop working. I wanted to keep getting better. And I knew that 46 rating would at least rise a couple of points over the years.”