Khalil Mack attracted national attention with his season-opening performance at Ohio State. His following has grown from there.
Mack became the first UB player ever named a finalist for a national honor with Monday’s announcement that the Butkus Award, presented to the country’s top linebacker, has been whittled to five contenders. Also in the final five are Anthony Barr of UCLA, C.J. Mosley of Alabama, Ryan Shazier of Ohio State and Shayne Skov of Stanford. The winner will be announced Dec. 10.
It was a MegaMonday for Mack. He also was named the MAC East Defensive Player of the Week for the third time this season after setting an NCAA career record for forced fumbles in last Tuesday’s 44-7 victory at Miami. Mack caused three fumbles against the RedHawks, to tie, break and then re-write a record that had been held by five. He’s up to 16 career forced fumbles heading into Friday’s regular-season finale against Bowling Green at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Mack joined Jeff Quinn at the coach’s weekly news conference Monday and appeared awed by his stature as a Butkus finalist. Mack did not play football in his junior year of high school in Fort Pierce, Fla., and was headed for Liberty University before UB extended him his only Division I scholarship offer.
A solid player as far back as his redshirt freshman season, Mack has thrived the last two seasons in the schemes of defensive coordinator Lou Tepper, who has coached five Butkus winners. Mack has also drawn near the NCAA career record for tackles for loss, needing just three to break the mark that’s stood since 2003.
“It’s a blessing,” Mack said of being named a Butkus finalist. “It’s a tribute to coach Quinn, coach Tepper, all the coaches that have made it happen. I’m blessed. I can’t say anything other than I’m blessed. And thankful.”
Mack named teammates past and present who have helped him grow as a player and move UB within a victory of a MAC championship game berth. He also credited drop safety Okoye Houston with setting up his record-breaking performance in the Miami game.
“The first time I touched the quarterback he was like, ‘You almost had it. He’s carrying the ball real loose.’ I was like, OK. So that’s a testament to how we think on the defensive side of the ball to try to get the ball anyway we can.”
“He’s very deserving to own that national record, a chance to put his name, his family’s name and the University at Buffalo above everybody else,” Quinn said. “It’s an incredible feeling and nobody’s more deserving than No. 46 sitting next to me.”
Mack dismissed the notion that he’s fulfilled his career quest by helping UB return to prominence. The Bulls captured the league championship in 2008 but hadn’t won more than five games in any season since. The winner of Friday’s UB-BG game captures the MAC East and faces Northern Illinois in the title game a week from Dec. 6 in Detroit.
“You could say we turned it around but I don’t say we’ve turned it around until we get where we want to be, and that’s the MAC Championship and calling ourselves the MAC champions,” he said. “Other than that, this is another game. We got to focus throughout the whole week. We have to go out this week knowing we have a chance to control our destiny. That’s the way I want the defensive side of the ball and the offensive side of the ball to think about this game. We’re going into it and practicing like we need to win today. That’s going to be the mind-set today on the practice field.”
It’s widely speculated that Mack will be a first-round pick in May’s NFL Draft and may well go in the top 10 picks. He chuckled when asked if he would be opposed to playing in Ralph Wilson Stadium seven times a year.
“Aw, man, whatever happens, happens,” he said. “I can’t control any of that. But it wouldn’t be bad.”
UB will hold its Wednesday practice at The Ralph. Bowling Green will use the stadium on Thursday. … Safety/linebacker Adam Redden and right guard Bobby Blodgett are practicing and expected to play Friday. Redden missed three games with a knee sprain while Blodgett sat out the Miami game as a precaution. He had a sore foot. … UB is ranked fourth nationally in turnover margin at plus-15.