Khalil Mack shuffled into UB Stadium early one midweek afternoon looking still deep in sleep. His eyelids were heavy, his gait slack. It was an incongruous image, a snapshot difficult to reconcile with the fury and tenacity Mack brings to the football field every practice, every game.
He's three starts into his sophomore season, and it's evident Mack's extraordinary freshman season was anything but beginner's luck, or a source of contentment. Instead it was a building block, the cornerstone of a career after which he could have had the greatest impact of any defensive player in the University at Buffalo's Division I era.
Mid-American Conference rival Kent State had its James Harrison, Akron its Jason Taylor. Mack, an outside linebacker, is progressing toward that level of elite company. Before the Ball State game, Cardinals coach Pete Lembo expressed doubt he'd see a more dynamic defensive player this season during tape study. UB coach Jeff Quinn's voice tone hit on admiration and a degree of reverence when he injected Mack's name in a conversation and identified him as "special."
Mack's accomplishments as a freshman -- which included a team-high 14.5 tackles for losses (4.5 shy of the school record) -- were merely a portent. This season he leads UB with 24 tackles, 14 of them unassisted. He tops the nation with 7.5 tackles for losses, pushing his career total to 22 in 15 games and putting him on pace to break into UB's all-time top 10 in the category within a matter of weeks. He's intercepted a pass, forced three fumbles and has twice as many quarterback hurries (six) as any teammate.
"I looked at it as an opportunity to build and keep pushing," Mack said of his freshman year. "My focus is not on me so much as it may seem. I go out every day and try to play to the best of my ability and try to support my teammates and be a better teammate this year. I have goals I'm trying to reach but at the same time I'm pushing myself and my teammates and that's what it's all about at the end of the day."
Mack's explosive, relentless on-field demeanor is in striking contrast to his off-field persona. Upon request, he brought a six-string acoustic guitar to UB Stadium on Thursday and gave a demonstration of what he's learned since first picking it up last March. He said he likes to play the Eagles hit "Hotel California." Instead, he went mellow, his biceps bulging in humorous counterpoint as he strummed and softly vocalized.
"I played drums in church and my brother always played them better than me so I had to find something else," Mack said. "Piano took too long. Guitar, I picked it up seeing Joe Petit play in his basement. I saw how smooth it was, cool, laid-back, it was right up my alley. I was ready to play it ever since then."
"He's made good progress, and he can sing too," said Petit, a senior cornerback. "When he first came in as a freshman a lot of the freshman guys used to come over and kind of hang out. I had a couple guitars at my house and I used to always be playing and after a while every time he would come over he would immediately just come to my room and pick up a guitar and keep playing. Eventually I just gave it to him."
The demands of the football season -- film study, meetings, practice and weight-room workouts on top of classes -- limit the time Mack, a psychology major from Fort Pierce, Fla., can lend to his new passion. But now that he's hooked, his approach to the guitar mirrors his attitude on the field.
"My personal goal is to be perceived as something great," Mack said. "My dad always told me don't do nothing if you can't be the best at it. So that's the approach I take in everything in life, including playing this guitar."
Go to the Campus Watch blog at buffalonews.com for video of Khalil Mack practicing his guitar.