Waides Ashmon heard all the stories. Now the time had come to separate the fact from the fiction, the truth from the hype. » Ashmon looked up the class schedule of this hibernating football talent everybody raved about. He strolled to a classroom and asked the teacher if he could have a minute with a particular student. Out walked Khalil Mack. The heart of the new football coach at Westwood High in Fort Pierce, Fla., began to race. » “I looked at this kid about 6-1½, maybe 6-2, 210, maybe 215 pounds and pure ripped,” Ashmon said. “It was like, ‘What do I need to do to get you on the football field?’ He was like, ‘Coach, I want to play, you need to talk it over with my dad.’ ” » A knee injury Mack suffered on the basketball court spurred concern for both his parents and himself. He hadn’t played football as a junior over fear of a recurrence. Ashmon offered a different point of view. The risks were minor. But think of all that Khalil might gain. » “At first they were reluctant to let him play,” Ashmon said. “We had a long conversation and I actually made a guarantee I had never made before in my life as a coach. I told him, his mom and his dad, ‘If you’ll allow him to come play for me I guarantee you that he’ll go to college free.’ ” » The vagaries of college recruiting nearly turned Ashmon into a liar. Mack had a monstrous senior season for the 10-2 Panthers. His 110 tackles nearly doubled the total of the next teammate in line. But most recruits are signed before their senior years. Mack remained overlooked.
The only offer on the table came from Liberty University, a I-AA program that provided partial scholarships. And Liberty it might have been except that …
A couple of weeks before Signing Day Turner Gill, then the head coach at UB, added Liberty assistant Robert Wimberly to his staff. Wimberly told Gill of this linebacker the Flames were recruiting. UB became the one and only I-A program to offer Mack a scholarship.
And that’s how the Bulls ended up with a linebacker who begins this season on four national watch lists, within reach of two NCAA career records and widely considered a probable first-round pick in April’s NFL draft.
Ashmon insists none of this surprises him. He recalls a conversation he had with Charlie Strong when Strong, now the coach at Louisville, was the defensive coordinator at Florida.
“I remember sitting there telling Coach Charlie Strong that if Khalil had one more year of high school eligibility he’d be the best linebacker in the country and the most highly recruited kid in the country,” Ashmon said. “There was no question in my mind because of his work ethic and what he put into it every single day.
“We would sit around and joke in the coaches office, ‘In five years this kid, he’s going to be a first-round draft pick. There’s no ifs ands and buts about it. He is a millionaire walking.’ ”
Talk of watch lists and NCAA records and NFL glory is enough to test anyone’s humility and perspective. Mack remains grounded by figuring two of the three are outside his control. He doesn’t have a vote when it comes to the Butkus Award or the Nagurski Trophy, the Chuck Bednarik Award or the Rotary Lombardi Award. Nor will he be sitting in an NFL war room on draft day deciding if and when he should be selected. The only thing he has a say in right now is his pursuit of those two NCAA career marks and defense of his glowing reputation.
Mack enters this season with 56 tackles for loss, 19 behind the standard set by Jason Babin of Western Michigan in 2003. Mack’s 11 forced fumbles already place him tied for ninth all-time and three behind the FBS record shared by five players.
“I’ve been made aware quite a bit about those records,” Mack said. “It’s a humbling experience to be close, but until you’re there it’s like, ‘OK, I got to work to get there. That’s my mind-set. Just keep working. Keep working to win. Whether I get a tackle in the backfield or I get a sack or whether I get a fumble, it’s all to win. It doesn’t change for me. I’m going to keep being a firecracker to the ball as fast as I can get there. I’m going to try to get the ball out. That’s the way I play and that’s the way I’ll continue to play, God willing.”
NFL scouts pop in and out of UB practices these days. Their deeper investigations have begun. They often seek out Bulls defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Lou Tepper, one of the country’s leading experts on linebackers. In 1975, Tepper wrote the book “Complete Linebacking.” A follow-up book, yet untitled, is in the works.
Tepper has coached three Butkus Award winners – Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy at Illinois, Alfred Williams at Colorado. When Tepper assesses Mack he does so with a keenly trained eye. While the weak side, strong side and middle linebacker are different positions demanding distinct skill sets, Tepper said an NFL team could slot Mack at any of them.
“I think he has developed truly into a complete linebacker now,” Tepper said. “I had an NFL scout ask me if in the NFL was he a ‘Will,’ a ‘Mike’ or a ‘Sam.’ I said he’s anyone you want. He can play all three.
“I haven’t had a lot of guys like that. Kevin Hardy was like that and he was the second guy taken in the draft. The guy with Houston now, Bradie James, Bradie was like that. Alfred Williams, who won the Butkus and was a first rounder, he really could play one of the three. Simeon Rice could play one of the three and he played the same position as Mack. Dana Howard, who is the strongest run player I’ve ever had, could only play one.
“This guy, he’s complete. He can do everything and I think he wants to be coached hard. He wants to be great, not good. Those are the qualities that I see in him.”
In the spring of 2007, Mack’s junior year, Ashmon brimmed with anticipation. He’d assessed Mack’s capabilities based on physique. Now he’d finally get a look at Mack on the practice field.
“I remember he was taking a class at the college so the first day when we started hitting he actually had to leave practice a little early so he could go to his class,” Ashmon said. “His mom actually came on the field. So it was, ‘All right, we got to go ahead and start the hitting drill earlier so we can actually see what he’s capable of doing.’ ”
The next day Ashmon set up one of his favorite drills: two offensive linemen, two defensive linemen, a quarterback, a running back and a linebacker. Mack possessed all the physical ammunition. But could he hunt?
Ashmon laughs at the memory. “He shed the block and destroyed the running back and I told him, ‘You can go ahead to class.’ I didn’t need to see any more.’ ”
Ferocity didn’t come naturally to Mack. It was a quality that once lay buried deep, waiting for someone to bring it to the fore. That person was Mack’s older cousin, Johnny Gamble, who sized up Mack during his youth football days and tagged him with the biting title of “Soft.” Mack’s older brother, Sandy Jr., had a remedy.
“So my brother took me out in the backyard and I was probably like 12, 11, and he was playing high school football,” Khalil said. “He took me outside and he had on his pads and I had on my pads.
“He said, ‘All right, I’m going to run the ball, you’re going to hit me.’ He challenged me and I hate being challenged. I tried as hard as I could. I tried to run through him as hard as I could and he ran me over, picked me up and said, ‘OK, let’s go again.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s go,’ and I kept trying and I kept getting run over.
“I tell you, no lie, when I ran into him that was probably the worst feeling I ever felt in my life. I don’t tell him that at all because he’s my big brother and he always pushed me around. He’s still trying to beat me up to this day.
“But that next day at practice I remember hitting somebody so hard that we had to stop, we had to stop practice and run around the field while they made sure he was OK. And I was like, ‘OK, I think I got this hitting thing now.’ ”
Mack figured his college future was set when he came out of hibernation and flourished his senior season at Westwood. His cousin and teammate Luther Robinson was on his way to Miami as a defensive lineman. Certainly at least one Florida college had taken note of Mack’s formidable play and would approach him scholarship in hand.
“I was supposed to be one of those guys that went to a big school down in Florida,” he said. “I always knew that I was good enough and I kind of felt like that motivated me enough to where I was going to be like, ‘All right, y’all gotta ball once you all get there because once I get to Buffalo there ain’t no holding back.’”
The one blip in Mack’s UB career came last summer, when his involvement in a locker room altercation resulted in a suspension that took him out of the season opener at Georgia. That stung. It was the game closest to his Florida home. It was against an opponent from the mighty SEC.
“It was a humbling experience, that’s what it was,” he said. “I had to accept that I was wrong and at the same time I had to learn from it. That’s what my dad always told me, you got to take everything you experience and learn from it and if you don’t learn from it you’re a fool.”
Mack goes 6-foot-4, 240 pounds these days, cutting a figure all the more imposing than the one Ashmon first laid eyes on. His demanding, unrelenting offseason workouts with Bulls running back Branden Oliver have molded him as a player, paved the way for his successes. Something one of his youth football coaches once said still rings in his ears.
“My coach said something to us after a practice one day,” Mack said. “ ‘Most of you guys can move on and play high school football and probably start. From there, some of you guys might move on to go to the college level.’ Then he said, ‘from the college level who knows, you might be in the pros.’
“I was, ‘The pros?’ I thought about it and that’s a long way to go, but there’s always a thing in the back of my mind: That’s a goal that I’ll try to pursue, I guess, because I always wanted to be the best at anything I did. My dad always told me, if you’re going to do something, be the best. That’s the approach I’m taking now. I’m going to work the hardest because talent can get beat by hard work any day.”