Big Mack on Campus
Published: Thursday, October 7, 2010
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11
When Khalil Mack stepped onto the field for the first time in a Bulls uniform, fans wondered what the redshirt freshman could bring to the team.
What they got was a deacon's son who plays the game like a bat out of hell.
The linebacker has put up impressive numbers early on, leading the team with eight tackles for a loss and ranking second on the Bulls with 2.5 sacks. His dominant performance in the win over Bowling Green earned him Mid-American Conference East Defensive Player of the Week honors.
While his recent play may have a lot of people noticing number 46, not everyone is surprised at how well Mack is playing.
"I said it before the season," said senior cornerback Dominic Cook. "He was going to be great. I just wanted everyone to watch out for him because he was going to be an incredible player."
Mack is beginning to make a name for himself up north but his story actually begins much farther south.
The 19 year old grew up in Fort Pierce, Fla. with his parents and two brothers. When Mack was younger, he idolized his older brother who instilled in him the will to never give up. This propelled him to succeed at such a high level. He first started playing football at a young age, although at that time he was valued more for his speed than his size.
"I was maybe nine or 10," Mack said. "I was smaller than everybody. I was playing 16 and 17 year olds. I was scared of them hitting me so it made me run faster."
He started playing pop warner a few years later but his play was nowhere near what it is today. His cousin was his coach at the time and believed that he could not hit and that he played soft.
Mack set out to prove him wrong during a hitting drill at one of his practices.
"The guy that lined up across from me didn't know what was about to hit him," Mack said. "To make a long story short, I took the wind out of him. After that hit I knew I had a good thing going."
Mack played football up until high school. He played for his school's junior varsity team his freshman year, but the combination of differences with the coaching staff and a torn patellar tendon caused him to quit the team.
In the Spring of his junior year, Mack's high school hired Waides Ashmon to coach the football team. This change, although made without any thought for how it might affect Mack specifically, was one of the most pivotal points of his life.
Ashmon came into one of Mack's classes to ask him personally if he would be interested in rejoining the team. Having just come off of surgery to repair his knee, Mack was not sure if football was a good idea, but he agreed to play and show what he could do.
It was during a spring practice that Mack was given the opportunity to earn a spot on the team. In a scene that was eerily similar to one that had taken place years earlier, Mack took an opportunity given to him and impressed everyone.
"We had this guy [on our team] who could squat 600 pounds and bench press 400," Mack said. "Coach put me out there with him and, being the competitive character that I am, I hit him so hard that he flipped over and his helmet came off."
After that drill, Ashmon approached Mack to find out whether or not he wanted to play in college.
When Mack said he wanted to give it a shot, Ashmon vowed to help him reach that goal.
During the recruiting process, Mack grew very close to Liberty coach Robert Wimberly. Wimberly had made such an impression, that Mack was all but ready to make his decision to attend Liberty and play football for the Flames. However, late in the process, Wimberly took a job coaching under former Bulls head coach Turner Gill. Mack was more concerned with the coach than the school, so he decided that Buffalo was the place for him.
When Mack first reached campus in the fall of 2009, he was redshirted.
"Redshirting my first year was aggravating at times," Mack said. "Knowing that I could have been helping the team was the most difficult part."
As aggravating as the experience was, Mack claims that having the opportunity to learn from the older players on the team as well as being able to focus on his studies without being thrown right into competition was a blessing.
The coaching change this past offseason was hard for Mack, especially with how close he had become with coach Wimberly, who followed Gill to Kansas.
The difficulties were made a little easier to swallow considering how he is a perfect fit for the new schemes and ideals brought in by head coach Jeff Quinn and defensive coordinator William Inge.
"He's a very athletic kid," Quinn said. "He's very disciplined and tough. The number one thing [this year] was him learning the new defense. He's understood his role and his responsibility for being a dominant football player."
Learning a new system of football is not easy, but Mack has been doing very well in adapting and growing in the months since the new regime took over. He makes sure that he always gives everything he has, even in practice, to be sure that he is always improving.
"He goes all out," said senior linebacker Justin Winters. "He gives 100 percent on every play. You can always count on him to do what he needs to do. He comes out of nowhere to make plays."
Although Mack has had success early on, he is making sure to stay humble knowing how difficult football can be at this level.
"I'm just doing my part," Mack said. "I don't really play for myself. I play for my teammates. It's those guys who are pushing me every day to be the best that I can be.