Legend of Kiko? Please, UB’s Mack is best linebacker in Buffalo - The Buffalo News

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Legend of Kiko? Please, UB’s Mack is best linebacker in Buffalo

Lou Tepper has been around a few years, so he knew exactly how to handle Khalil Mack during practice last week. UB’s defensive coordinator started messing with his star linebacker’s head and riding him about left tackle Anthony Dima, the 6-foot-7, 300-pound behemoth for Massachusetts.

Dima might as well have been Anthony Munoz by the time Tepper was finished building up the redshirt senior. Tepper showed up one day with a video clip of the character from Rocky IV, who was sculpted from a laboratory in Russia. Tepper even started referring to Dima with the name of the character.

“We called him Drago,” Tepper said. “I said, ‘If you’re intimidated by him, I’ll just put you over the other tackle.’ It was playful.”

Mack wasn’t playing around when he took the field Saturday. He warned Dima that he was in for a long afternoon. Soon after, he started throwing him around like dirty laundry. On a second-and-10 play on UMass’ first offense series, Mack ran over Dima like a speed bump on his way to dropping A.J. Doyle for a 4-yard loss.

“I mentioned to him that I was coming, so be ready,” Mack said. “I don’t think he was ready that play. It has been mentioned all week that this guy was a top-caliber guy. Coach Tepp had been bugging me and bugging me all week. That one play showed you how I felt about being bugged all week.”

Mack recorded his 24th sack, tying him with Rich Dadabo and Vince Canosa back when UB was playing Division III. I’m guessing you haven’t heard of either, so let’s try another: Terrell Suggs. Mack had two tackles for losses, moving past Suggs and into third place for most in NCAA history.

The Legend of Kiko? Please. Alonso could be in contention for the Defensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL, but he’s not even the best linebacker in Buffalo.

Mack’s stock, which soared last season and climbed with a terrific performance against Ohio State in the opener, spiked again Saturday in a 32-3 victory over UMass. Scouts from the Raiders, Colts and Giants gushed over his performance in the press box, which has been the case with other scouts in practices all year.

Many so-called NFL draft experts believe Mack is the best linebacker in the nation and see him as a top 10 pick overall in April. Is it ludicrous to believe Mack could be taken first? Not when you remember that Kansas City used the top choice last year on Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher.

“If this kid doesn’t win the Butkus Award, it’s an injustice,” Tepper said. “He’s that good. This kid is in an elite group.”

Tepper would know. He’s been coaching college football since 1967 and has had three Butkus winners: Alfred Williams at Colorado and Kevin Hardy and Dana Howard at Illinois. Mack could end up being better than all of them. It’s difficult to fathom anybody being better after watching Mack dominate UMass.

Branden Oliver rushed for 216 yards and scored a touchdown. Joe Licata threw for 167 yards and another score. Mack made the biggest play of the game when he returned an interception 35 yards for a score in the second quarter, all but handing UB its fifth straight win and helping the Bulls improve to 3-0 in the conference.

The Bulls’ first-team defense has gone 10 quarters without giving up a touchdown. The last time UB’s starters allowed a TD was in the second quarter of a 42-14 rout of Eastern Michigan on Oct. 5.

Mack has scored more touchdowns than Western Michigan and UMass combined in the past two weeks.

UB coach Jeff Quinn could have inserted him into the offense after losing No. 1 wideout Alex Neutz and left guard Jasen Carlson to injuries. Mack is athletic enough to play receiver and strong enough to play offensive line. That’s not a joke, folks. Quinn could put him anywhere on the field. Mack was all over the field, anyway, so why not?

“He’s that talented,” Quinn said. “He could probably play tight end. He could probably play fullback. He could probably play tailback. Khalil is as high achieving of a player as I’ve ever seen.”

Mack disrupted UMass’ offense from the moment the Minutemen checked out of their hotel. He was everywhere before the snap, after the snap. Heck, there were a few plays in which he darned near took the snap. Take away the interception he returned for a touchdown, delete it from the record books, and he was still the best player on the field.

Doyle’s top priority at the line of scrimmage was locating him, a chore made tougher with the way Tepper moved his linebacker around the defense. Mack lined up at all three linebacker positions. He came off the edge in passing situations. He even lined up at defensive tackle.

If he wasn’t in the UMass huddle, he was certainly in their heads. For all the energy the Minutemen used trying to find him, he managed to make himself vanish during the play and reappear around the ball.

Let’s start with the touchdown, which was Khalik Mack at his best wrapped neatly into one play. It was almost as if Mack made a conscious decision on the previous play, after just missing an interception, that he needed to take over. Doyle slipped an 8-yard pass to wide receiver Bernard Davis while Mack was in pass coverage.

UMass got away with one, and Mack made them pay, dearly, the way he did against Ohio State after letting a sack slip away one play before a pick-six.

Doyle had the audacity to throw in his direction after figuring he was free of danger and looking over the middle for running back Jamal Wilson. Mack stepped in front at the 35-yard line, raced across the open field, stumbled, broke free from David Osei, and carved his way into the end zone for a 10-0 lead.

“I couldn’t believe they did that,” Mack said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my god. Thank you, Jesus. I have to score this touchdown.’ I was surprised. It was a blessing.”

Mack was lined up on the right side of the defense on another play, saw the play was going away from him and ran about 10 yards to knock down a pass intended for Wilson over the middle. Doyle all but surrendered in the fourth quarter when he chucked the ball to safety with Mack closing on him like, a Mack truck.

It was a long day for UMass’ offense tackles, especially Dima. There was no helping him against Mack, a passing-rushing machine.

Dima must be thinking the guy was constructed in a laboratory.

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

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