If he played in the SEC or one of the other major conferences the temptation might have been too much for Khalil Mack to resist. Excelling against that kind of competition would have elevated his status for last April’s NFL Draft. He might have been projected as no worse than a second-round pick instead of someone likely to go by the end of the fourth.
But validation’s harder to come by in the Mid-American Conference. Rarely do players leave the MAC early because there’s a lot to gain by giving scouts another year to assess. Just look at what happened with Central Michigan offense tackle Eric Fisher, who in April defied steep odds by shooting all the way up to the No. 1 overall pick.
So Mack’s back at outside linebacker for his senior season at UB and determined to put the NFL and draft talk out of mind. He returned to get his degree in psychology. He returned to make a run at a MAC championship. And he returned to improve on his weaknesses with the help of coaches such as defensive coordinator Lou Tepper.
“No doubt, that’s what I look to do every year,” Mack said after the Bulls opened training camp Monday at UB Stadium. “I have certain weaknesses from last year that I’m trying to work on now and I worked on in the summer. There’s always things I can learn. I’m always open to learning, especially with a guy like Coach Tep. He always tells you what you may be doing wrong.”
Mack returned home to Fort Pierce, Fla., after last season to contemplate his next move. Three years with the Bulls had resulted in staggering production. He is 19 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles shy of topping those categories in the NCAA record book. Was it really necessary to return to Buffalo?
Bulls coach Jeff Quinn paid a visit and reminded Mack and his family of the program’s mission: degrees and championships. Was Mack going to leave with neither?
“The way I grew up, I wasn’t always an A student or anything like that, but being that I had the opportunity to go to college, I feel like it was my responsibility to go out and get my degree,” Mack said. “My mother, she made it clear to me that if wasn’t worth anything else if I didn’t go and get my degree in something that had weight to it. That’s why I wanted to finish. I know it was important for her and me. I want to finish with a degree in psychology.”
In many ways Mack’s senior year is all about pursuit. He wants that degree. He wants that MAC title. And he wants to end the season a better player than he is today.
“Coach Tep mainly focuses on me and my leadership and pursuing to the ball,” Mack said. “He feels I can be way better in my pursuit even though I may make a few plays down the field here and there. He wants me to keep using that as a way to lead everybody else, and that’s something that I’m dedicating my play to this year.”
His teammates aren’t about to let NFL draft projections go to Mack’s head. They kid him about it often, especially when he leapt to No. 19 overall in one early mock draft,
“You have to let all that stuff go and play for your teammates,” Mack said. “You have to do what you’re here to do. That’s one thing that I’ve been able to drop out of my head for the past two months. It’s not easy but I’m blessed to be around the teammates that I have.
“They might joke around, ‘Oh, you’re No, 19 in the country, you’re big time,’ but at the same time they keep me humble.”
“I’ve never questioned Khalil’s ability to stay locked in and focused and be tight-minded,” Quinn said. “He’s such a great competitor that all the other stuff will never affect him because he takes a tremendous amount of pride in the way he plays and he performs. He knows that if any other distractions enter between his ears it’s going to take him out of his game.”
Draft talk will swirl around him all throughout the season. That’s for everyone else, Mack says.
“Everybody knows that I’m here to play for the team, for UB, and we’re ready to win a championship,” he said. “A championship is a necessity right now. We need it. Everybody is hungry.”