Return of the Mack
The story of how linebacker Khalil Mack went from unrecruited nobody to certified superstar
Published: Friday, August 30, 2013
Updated: Saturday, August 31, 2013 18:08
The four-year age gap didn’t matter. They went full speed, head to head, at each other.
“I tried to hit him and he ran me over three times, and my nose started bleeding,” Mack said. “I tried everything. I tried to hit him as hard as I could. It’s the worst feeling I’ve ever felt in my life, probably.”
Mack never brought him down that day, but Sandy learned something – his brother was far from soft.
“Khalil didn’t ever give up,” Sandy recalled. “Every time, he stood up, no matter how hard we hit. Whatever we did in any sport, Khalil never gave up. He would always be ready to get back up and go again.”
Lou Tepper has coached football since 1967.
UB’s defensive coordinator is one of the most respected defensive minds in the game. He has written the book “Complete Linebacking,” and he has coached three Butkus Award winners – the prestigious honor given to the best linebacker in the nation.
Tepper said Mack is one of only four linebackers he has coached who could play all three linebacking positions at the next level. Even Simeon Rice, the No. 3 draft pick in 1996, was not a complete linebacker.
“[Mack] is in exclusive company,” Tepper said.
In addition to his versatility, Mack has something most star linebackers Tepper has coached simply cannot attain.
“He’s got great humility,” Tepper said. “Most people with the talent that he possesses, they think they’re better than others.”
Tepper constantly reminds Mack to embrace the Bible verses Philippians 2:3-4: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
Though people notice the sacks and tackles for loss, Tepper said Mack has improved the most in the past two years in coverage. It might be scary to consider, but Mack was still learning Tepper’s newly implemented defensive scheme last year – and he finally has it down.
“He feels more confident,” Tepper said. “Last year was difficult for everybody.”
Entering this year with confidence could mean big things for Mack – perhaps even historic things.
It seems everyone wants to talk about the records.
Mack said he has been asked the most this offseason about pursuing two all-time NCAA records. He is 19 tackles for loss shy of the all-time mark and has averaged 18.7 per year, and he is three forced fumbles away from the record and has averaged 3.7 per year.
But the records, he insists, don’t mean much. What means more to him is the 9-27 record his team has accrued the past three seasons – and the much loftier goals he has for this, his final season.
“It’s nice, but I just want to win,” he said. “I want to win a MAC Championship.”
The expectations for this year’s team are vast – a title, rather than thought of fleetingly, is considered a realistic goal – and those expectations are higher for nobody than Mack. Head coach Jeff Quinn thinks his star is built to handle the hoopla.
“He’s got an instinctive nature to his ability to play the game,” Quinn said. “He sees things; he can react pretty quick. He’s been blessed with a lot of power, strength and the ability to explode. His passion and leadership have been very solid – the best is yet to come.”
Saturday's season opener against No. 2 Ohio State means a little bit more to Mack than most games.
“That’s somebody I’ve admired since I was in middle school,” Mack said of Meyer. “He was the reason I wanted to go to the University of Florida. He’s a great coach. I really want to go against some of the best programs. That’s always been my mindset: I just wanted to show I was good enough to go to those big schools that overlooked me.
“Being from Florida, I wanted to go to a Florida school, and they looked over me and didn’t recognize my talent at the time. Even though I only played one year of varsity at Westwood, it was bittersweet. At the same time, it was more reason to go out and prove that I deserve to play at that level.”
Some of Mack’s teammates, like his cousin Luther Robinson, a defensive lineman at Miami, got scooped by major Division I programs. Mack, of course, did not.
“For Khalil, I think that left a real bitter sting in him,” said Ashmon, his high school coach. “He definitely should have been one of those kids who went on to play at a Florida, at a Florida State, somewhere of that nature, and I think he kind of felt like he was robbed. And he is proving every single day that, ‘Everyone, you all made a mistake. I am a big-time player.’”
Saturday is another chance at redemption. The Bulls are 35.5-point underdogs, but that doesn’t faze Mack. Asked who on Ohio State he is most looking forward to facing, he is transparent: “Urban Meyer.”
Try getting inside Mack's head.
Ashmon says it’s impossible. He attempted to rattle the young linebacker every day in grueling practices and never succeeded.
“South Florida football is tough,” Ashmon said. “We try to break our kids down and build ’em back up, and he has that look on his face like ‘bring it on,’ and he’s gonna keep working and keep working to the point that he’s going to make you tired because he’s working so hard.”
You might not be able to unnerve him, but you can get a glimpse into what he’s thinking in the heat of the moment.