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Sunday, February 05, 2023
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The Others

At Pro Day, seniors remind me what made their class stand out

I only saw Khalil Mack get any semblance of frustrated during an interview once this season. Reporters ask athletes - especially stars like Mack - all sorts of weird and probing questions, but I asked the only one that bothered him, from what I observed.

Context: When the Bulls defeated Ohio 30-3 Nov. 5, senior wide receiver Alex Neutz hauled in two touchdowns and tied the mark for most receiving scores in school history. (He later caught three more and now has sole possession of the record.) After the game, I asked Mack in the press conference if it felt good to see a valuable member of the senior class - someone who wasn't getting as much attention- to hit such a prestigious point. Dumb wording.

Mack, polite as athletes come, thought about his response before saying: "I believe Alex is ... getting all the attention he can. He's a great player."

You could see his thoughts on his face: Are you suggesting I'm taking attention away from my teammates? That's not what I was implying, and it'd be a foolish argument to make.

If anything, Mack drawing scouts to games helped his comrades. But there was this dramatic disconnect throughout the season: it seemed scouts were at every UB game and summer practice, but only towatch Mack; outlets wanted to interview only Mack. As tremendous of a player as Mack is - and I'll be the first to tell you he's the best athlete this school has ever had (and might ever have) - I thought it was cool that for that night after the win over Ohio, people were focusing on another valuable senior.

Which brings me to Tuesday. For the first time in school history, all 32 NFL teams attended UB's annual Pro Day at Ralph Wilson Stadium. This was, of course, due to the attendance of Mack, who is projected to go in the top five of this year's draft. But it also created an opportunity for some of the less heralded but immensely talented Bulls - guys like Alex Neutz - to get exposure.

As I walked around Pro Day, chatting with the familiar players got me thinking about this senior class. Sixteen total Bulls put their athletic abilities on display Tuesday, and there's a chance only 1/16 of them will have their phones ring with an NFL team on the other end during the draft, which runs May 8-10. If mock drafts are accurate, that's the way things will go.

NFL teams will miss out on an abundance of potential, not to mention truly quality individuals, if they pass on selecting everyone from UB not named Khalil Mack.

Obviously, Mack was the draw of the day. The cameras stayed on him. The scouts' heads moved whenever he so much as flinched. Though I'm glad Mack is getting everything he deserves, I took particular interest in following some of the other guys.

You have Adam Schefter to report on Mack now anyway.

Running back Branden Oliver - who's 5-foot-7 - put up 26 reps on the bench press (225 pounds). He wasn't happy, though: he said he did it 29 times last year. That's the kind of animal he is.

Corner Najja Johnson ran an unofficial 4.29 in the 40-yard dash (they don't release official 40 times at Pro Day)(I don't get it either). Four point two nine! He also put up 11 reps on the bench - for a corner, that's impressive, especially when you consider that he was putting up four in January. Johnson added eight solid pounds in the past two months and still ran a 4.29.

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Neutz lunged 9-feet-9-inches in the broad jump.

Safety Derek Brim leapt 35 inches in the high jump.

Like Mack, many of the men in this class are not only exceptional athletes but great people. I can't emphasize that enough. In sports journalism, you meet a lot of athletes. Once in a while, you meet a special one, but it's rare. Hubris is a fatal curse to which most fall victim. Not this class. In this class, there are many special ones.

There are the five fellows I've already mentioned, plus Fred Lee, Brandon Murie, Colby Way and more. They've been training all over the country. Neutz in Philly. Johnson in Connecticut. Others, like Lee and Brim, have stayed in the Western New York region.

Each athlete has pushed his body mercilessly for Tuesday's event, hoping that one team - just one team - takes a liking to him. Scouts don't think it'll work out that way, and though I hope they're wrong and teams will take a chance on some of the athletes, I have no doubt these seniors will be successful wherever they end up in life.

I was reminded Tuesday just how special their class is - beyond 8-5, beyond a bowl game, beyond any NFL selection. There are no stats that gauge quality people, and it's not a sexy topic for a sports column, but when a senior class like this one comes around, it's important to recognize it.

UB football will miss these players dearly, as UB will miss these human beings, and an NFL team would be lucky to have them.




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