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Former UB Bulls Khalil Mack, Branden Oliver and Xavier Ford return to campus to watch men’s basketball game

Athletes cite UB as reason they are where they are today

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Before the accolades, the fame and the money, Khalil Mack, Branden Oliver and Xavier Ford were three unknown athletes with large aspirations. Not many programs in the country gave them a shot to show off their talent to the nation.

UB did.

Before Mack became the star of the Oakland Raiders’ defense, he was a Fort Pierce, Florida recruit whose only scholarship offer other than UB was from Division I-AA Liberty.

Five-foot-8 Oliver’s only offer came from Buffalo. He currently takes handoffs in the San Diego Chargers’ backfield.

And Ford, who continues to climb up the ranks of the Detroit Pistons organization, was a two-star recruit who escaped the hardships of his hometown of Colorado Springs.

And when those three players returned to campus to watch the men’s basketball game against Ohio Friday night, it reiterated one more time that they remember where they started before rising on the national circuit.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of some great teams,” Mack said while sitting in the stands Friday night, “especially being a part of this UB Bulls organization for 4-5 years.”

Mack is now a standout linebacker/defensive end for the Raiders that captivated the nation this past season by making history in more than one way. He’s one of 15 players in NFL history to record five or more sacks in a single game and he’s now the only player to be named All-Pro at two different positions in the same season.

“I’m blessed to have that recognition, especially from an All-Pro perspective,” Mack said. “It’s huge. It’s huge. My thing is can I do it again?”

It was a 2013 matchup against Ohio State, the first game of his senior season with Buffalo, that catapulted Mack into the national spotlight.

He jumped Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller’s fade left and took it back for a touchdown. He finished that early-season matchup with nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception return for a touchdown.

Twitter blew up that day. And in essence, so did Mack. From that point on, he was Buffalo’s superstar.

“[Buffalo] got me ready for the big stage, so to speak,” Mack said.

Buffalo still gets Oliver ready for the “big stage.”

Oliver gained national attention during his rookie season after a two-week stretch in which he acuminated 306 yards from scrimmage, before ending this past season on injured reserve with a turf toe injury. During the offseason, he regularly comes back to Western New York to train, especially as he’s rehabbing. He said he’s begun running drills and making cuts again and will be ready for training camp.

Oliver has a pronounced love for Buffalo. He enjoys coming back to the city to either see his old teammates or just experience the atmosphere like he did on Friday night.

And he feels right at home.

“It’s good just to get back into the atmosphere and everything,” Oliver said. “Definitely, I can feel this weather again coming from San Diego, but it’s good. I usually come here during the offseason. As long as I’m playing in the NFL, I’ll usually be back here.”

Oliver’s most recent public appearance at UB was during this past football season.

Ford can’t say the same.

The last time Ford, currently a rookie for the Grand Rapids Drive in the NBA’s Development League, was seen in Alumni Arena, he was cutting down nets last March after Buffalo won the Mid-American Conference East. Friday was also his first time seeing his old Buffalo teammates that he won a MAC title with.

“It’s a new feeling of being here for the first time,” Ford said. “When I came, it makes me remember. The last thing I remember is cutting down the nets. That’s always cool knowing we hung a banner up.”

Ford admits being an observer rather than a player is “weird,” but he knows it will get easier as time goes on. He’s made the trip north from Michigan to see the NBA All-Star Weekend events taking place in nearby Toronto, but he made sure to spare a few days in Buffalo.

As part of NCAA rules, alumni of a team are allowed to practice with the current squad occasionally. He practiced with the Bulls on Thursday before their game against Ohio.

He said it’s a weird dynamic because college ball and D-League ball are two different styles. But Ford doesn’t ever take it for granted.

The former power forward who erupted during last year’s postseason was more than open to helping the Bulls prepare for the rest of conference play. During the practice, he occasionally spoke to the team about how to handle the end of a season and come out a winner in Cleveland at the MAC Tournament.

“It’s cool to see the change to know where I came from and where I am now,” Ford said.

Ford doesn’t forget his second home – the place that made him an NBA-caliber talent. Neither did Mack, even through all of his successes.

“It’s home,” Mack said. “It’s a home away from home for me, man. Coming up here, this is my grind city – a blue-collar town.”

Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at jordan.grossman@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jordanmgrossman. 


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