Leading by example
Senior defensive end Ledarius Mack charts his own path at Buffalo
Ledarius Mack has always had big shoes to fill.
His older brother, Khalil, was an All-American linebacker at UB.
But Ledarius, who was once teased by friends for not being “tough enough” to make it on the gridiron, has never been one to back down from a challenge. He used his friends’ teasing and brother’s success as motivation.
Today, Mack is a team captain and starting defensive end for UB’s football team. While his bloodline and athleticism might suggest he’s a natural fit at the collegiate level, Mack’s route to Buffalo — and football — was anything but ordinary.
Mack was a freshman basketball player at ASA College in Miami when a friend joked that he would never make it as a football player.
“Oh, you’re scared,” Mack recalls his friend saying. “You won’t be able to play football. You’ll never be a football player. You’re not tough enough.”
Mack had last played football at the Pop Warner level at age 13. He grew up in a household full of athletes, but primarily played basketball and ran track. As a kid, he didn’t have much interest in the sport.
But Mack was already dissatisfied with the basketball program at ASA and wanted a “way out.” So he walked onto the school’s football team and became one of the most promising inside linebacker prospects in the area.
“Things didn’t click in the basketball program,” he said. “Football was my way out of there, so I just stuck with that.”
Mack finished his sophomore campaign at ASA with 24 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception. His muscular physique and ability to play in space aligned perfectly with the inside linebacker position.
While his older brother was becoming a top defensive player in the NFL, Ledarius was making a name for himself on the Junior College recruiting circuit.
Still, he couldn’t seem to attract attention from Division I-A schools. He had only one offer, from lower-level Mississippi Valley State. That all changed when Khalil tweeted a message of support.
“Kept my lil brother a secret for UB… unfortunately they don’t feel he’s worth a scholarship just wait,” Khalil tweeted.
Over the next few weeks, University of Maryland and the University of Central Florida said they were interested. Then, UB coach Lance Leipold extended a scholarship offer. Mack accepted.
Things were difficult for Mack at the start. He was at a significant disadvantage, considering he had picked up football just three years earlier. To make the transition easier, Mack was moved from inside linebacker to defensive end.
“He just has a lot of natural pass rush abilities,” said UB Defensive Ends Coach Taiwo Onatolu. “When you come into a new system, the defense is a lot to learn for linebackers. We knew we had a limited amount of time for him, and some of the things we saw — him getting off the ball, him having natural pass rush ability — we thought he’d be better suited to pick up that position and be effective at rushing the quarterback.”
Mack redshirted in his first season at Buffalo.
“I knew I had more to learn, so it was really a learning process for me, through that redshirt year,” Mack said.
Mack showed what he learned as a redshirt junior in the 2018 season. He appeared in 14 games, garnering 13 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble. He “played a backup role,” Onatolu said, only entering games on third downs, when he was used to rush the passer.
Coaches have used Mack’s abilities liberally this season and he has become a respected leader on the Bulls defensive line. Mack has 12 total tackles, 4 sacks and 2 forced fumbles on the year.
On Oct. 21, Mack was named the MAC East Defensive Player of the Week after racking up 4 total tackles, 1 sack and 1 forced fumble against Akron.
“I was just doing my job,” Mack said. “The quarterback had a lot of confidence to hold the ball that long. It’s not going to be a good game for him. The quarterback was savvy, but that made my job much easier.”
Mack has progressed in his three years at Buffalo. He describes himself as a “guy who doesn’t talk that much,” which is why his coaches are most proud of his development as a leader and team captain.
“He used to be a leader by example. Now, he leads verbally,” Onatolu said. “That was the biggest thing we challenged him to do in the spring: ‘You’re going to be a senior, lead the group and people will listen. You need to talk. You need to be more vocal.’ He’s really taken that on his shoulder and done that.”
For Mack, nothing is as important as his leadership role. He sees it as the climax of his journey, one that took him from the hardwood courts of junior college to the football fields of the Division I-A level.
“It’s very important,” Mack said. “I take everything seriously as far as work ethic. I make sure I’m on time. I make sure my schedule is on time. … You have guys who look up to you, they see what you do on and off the field. You have to be a leader on and off the field. You have to lead by example. You have to do everything the right way and do everything up to the standard.”
Justin Weiss is an assistant sports editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.