Top 10 of the D1 Era - No. 1: Khalil Mack
NCAA record-setter, top draft pick is clear choice for best athlete in program history
Khalil Mack sacks UConn quarterback Chandler Whitmer during the Bulls' 42-13 win over the Huskies Sept. 28. Mack finished his college career tied for the all-time NCAA record for tackles for loss. Chad Cooper, The Spectrum
Mack returns an interception 35 yards for a touchdown during a 32-3 home victory against UMass Oct. 19. Chad Cooper, The Spectrum
For Najja Johnson, it happened during a scout team scrimmage in 2009.
For Jeff Quinn, it was during 2009-10 winter conditioning.
For Fred Lee, it was during a game at Tennessee in 2011.
Everyone who's been around the University at Buffalo football program the past four years has had a moment of epiphany: the sudden realization that Khalil Mack was Khalil Mack. That he was different from everyone else. That he was a once-in-a-lifetime talent who could become the best to ever come through UB.
Now, with Mack's college career complete and him moving on to the Oakland Raiders, who drafted him No. 5 Thursday in New York City, there is no doubt about it: he is the greatest UB athlete of the modern era.
Johnson describes his epiphany as the moment he "knew for sure [Mack] was the truth."
Many had suspected that Mack was, in fact, the truth before this year - it was hard to ignore his gaudy stats and even gaudier physical potential - but the 2013-14 season was the one that solidified it for scouts and casual fans. Those paying attention didn't have just one moment this year; they had several.
There was that time Aug. 31 in the season opener that Mack picked off Heisman candidate Braxton Miller, returned it 53 yards, dove for the pylon (full-extension, hand-outstretched-like-MJ-in-Space Jam style) and scored a touchdown. He had 2.5 sacks that game and helped UB put a scare into No. 2 Ohio State.
There was that time Oct. 26 at Kent State that Mack made the game-changing play, sticking out one of his giant hands (10.25 inches, to be exact) and reeling in a one-handed pick even standout receiver Alex Neutz envied. "This dude just puts his paw in the air and snags it," Neutz put it after the game.
And then there was one more, following the Oct. 19 game against UMass - it's out of chronological order, of course, but I saved it for last because it's my favorite. At one point in the second quarter, Mack bull-rushed a (much bigger) left tackle and annihilated him before sacking the quarterback. I mean, he pancaked the O-lineman - lifted him up off the turf and threw him on his back. NFL scouts in the press box were audibly giddy.
"I told the guy before the play, 'be ready,'" Mack said after the game. "I don't think he was ready."
After Mack's first three years, fans should probably have been ready for what he was going to do this season - but many around town weren't, at least not for something to this extent. Not to the point that he'd set one all-time NCAA record (fumbles forced), tie another (tackles for loss), win the Jack Lambert Award (given to the best linebacker in the nation) and work his way to a top NFL Draft pick.
Mack, a three-time (2011-13) first-team All-Mid-American Conference selection, was informed Monday he'd been selected for No. 1 on this list, which has been revealed in a series over the past four weeks.
"That's a blessing," he said. "It's a blessing to be recognized for being a great athlete, but then again, my focus in life is not just athletic and on football. I'm focused on being a great person. I feel like everybody can do that."
Don't be surprised the jock got a bit philosophical. He's been that way throughout his career, constantly emphasizing his faith - "I live for a higher power and through his grace and mercy and hard work, anything is possible," he said Monday - and turning football into a lens to view his life through.
In his senior year, the deacon's son amassed 10.5 sacks, 19 tackles for loss, 100 tackles, five forced fumbles, three interceptions and two touchdowns.
The Bulls went 2-10 (1-7 MAC) Mack's redshirt freshman year. They finished 8-5 (6-2 MAC) his senior year and earned the school's second-ever bowl appearance.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, the 6-foot-3, 251-pound specimen ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash - what? - in addition to putting up 23 reps on the 225-pound bench press and measuring in at a 40-inch vertical leap.
ESPN has been analyzing seemingly every facet of his game in recent months, but perhaps the most overlooked part has been his work ethic. After team workouts at UB, Mack could constantly be found with friend Branden Oliver (No. 10 on this list) wearing a weighted vest and running up a hill at the old UB Stadium.
He's been working for seven years, since he picked football back up his junior year of high school, to disprove doubters. UB gave Mack his only Division I offer.
"I want everybody to know that I'm a hard worker, man, and I don't like being told I can't do something," Mack said. "I'm gonna do whatever I can. You can't put me in that box, whatever the box may be at the time."
Johnson, a first-team All-MAC corner last season, caught on to Mack's potential early on.
"When we all came in as freshmen, he just looked different," Johnson said. "I knew for sure he was the truth when in a scout team scrimmage our freshman year, he absolutely destroyed the running back the first play. At that point, I knew he was special."
Quinn, the Bulls' head coach who inherited Mack's services when Turner Gill, who recruited Mack, left for Kansas, noticed Mack's emergence the following winter.
"I saw it in winter conditioning," Quinn said. "His body was different. You could tell he was going to fill into what he was blessed with ... it was only a matter of time. I saw him the other day and I just thought, wow. He looks better now than he ever has."
Mack was on the scout team and redshirted his first year. The following season, he had 14.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 68 tackles and two fumbles forced. He gained confidence and filled into his frame as every year passed. He could often be found around campus carrying water jugs.
knew how to take care of himself," Quinn said.
Take one look at him and you'll know that's true. As Waides Ashmon, Mack's high school coach, told The Spectrum in August of Mack's abs: "I think they start at his back and they actually come around to his chest and go down. It's like, 'Man, come on, what do you do, 7,000 crunches a day?' He had probably about a 12-pack in high school."
Mack's play on the field lured scouts in (multiple NFL teams were at every game this year). His physique hooked them.
This whole UB-football-player-getting-national-press situation has been beneficial for Mack's teammates, too. When the Atlanta Falcons came to town several weeks ago, they worked out Oliver in addition to Mack.
"It's been an exciting process," said Lee, the Bulls' second-leading receiver this year and one of Mack's closest friends. "It happened to someone who deserves it. He's so humble, so down to earth. He could be anywhere in the world right now, but he chooses to be in Buffalo - he hangs out with his teammates.
"Right now is his last opportunity to not be mobbed everywhere he goes. He won't be able to go anywhere without being mobbed, without being known. Spending his last time of freedom with us says a lot about his friendship."
Mack will deny that passersby know who he is. He almost never gets recognized in public, he'll say. Typical Mack response.
"I'm not sure anyone could've handled this process any better than Khalil has," Johnson said. "He's remained grounded and the same friend I've known for the past five years."
Mack, a psychology major, took this semester off of school to focus on training for the draft, but he said he plans to finish his degree at UB. "My mom won't let me not," he said.
He just has to complete one psych course and one Spanish class - actually, make that one language requirement. He probably won't take Spanish again. "I hated it," he laughed.
At the beginning of this school year, The Spectrum released its football preview issue. Mack stood boldly on the cover with a screaming look on his face, fists clenched, arms out to the side and one knee kicked up in the air.
It's only fitting that it all comes full circle. When people discuss the 2013-14 academic year for not only the UB athletic department but the university in general, they'll likely remember Mack as the most influential figure.
And maybe they'll feel a little bit of the magic one more time, flashing back to that moment we all had, that sudden realization that Khalil Mack was, quite simply, Khalil Mack - the best athlete in University at Buffalo history.
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