When Khalil Mack finally stepped on the football field this year, he did so determined to regain lost ground.
A training camp altercation with a teammate resulted in a one-game suspension that left Mack, an all-MAC linebacker, behind in Buffalo for the opener at Georgia. His season had been reduced to 11 games from 12. He had disappointed himself, his father, his coaches and his teammates. He wanted to make things right.
There's no perfect solution to the situation Mack brought upon himself, no way to make complete restitution. Would he have made a game-changing difference in that 45-23 loss at Georgia? That's just it. We'll never know. But there's no denying he's capable.
Mack's quest to make good on his misstep amped up production to where his two-game start to this season nearly replicates his first three games of '11. Last year at this time he had 23 tackles, 7.5 tackles for losses and three forced fumbles. This season he has 20 tackles, 7.5 tackles for losses and three sacks in one less game.
Kent State cornerback Darius Polk received the weekly nod as the Mid-American Conference East's top defensive player for intercepting two passes against UB nine days ago. While those picks no doubt factored in the outcome, all the evidence points to Mack as the game's dominant defensive presence. He was in on 12 tackles, came up with four tackles for losses, produced two quarterback sacks and broke up a pass.
"Khalil has taken his game to another level," Bulls coach Jeff Quinn said at this week's media news conference. "You guys saw it and I saw it. And that's why he's one of the best in the country."
"I always look to be productive, especially as a player coming into his junior year," Mack said. "I feel that I have to show even more of an impact than I already have. I have to step my game up another level, especially if I want to pursue a professional career. There's obviously individual goals that I have, but those goals come with winning."
The sting of missing the Georgia game went beyond a game opportunity squandered. Mack's passion for the game tracks to his father, Sandy, who missed out playing high school football to work in support of his family. One can only wonder what kind of player Sandy might have been.
"Have you ever seen his dad?" asked Waides Ashmon, Khalil's high school coach. "He's probably 6-3, 290 pounds, all muscle. A lot of people don't know that Khalil's weight room [dedication] and that work ethic, that comes from his dad."
Mack grew up in Fort Pierce, Fla. The Georgia game was as close to home as Mack would have played a game at any point in his college career. He's said in the past that he plays hard all the time to maximize the opportunity his father never had. No surprise then that the conversation with his father subsequent to the suspension wasn't an easy one.
"Oh. Man. That was tough," Mack said. "That was tough knowing that was the one game he was going to come to. If anything, my dad was disappointed in the situation because he knows I'm better than that. But he supported me through it and I appreciate that. It's something we got past. He's going to be around at the Pitt game to support me."
Mack heads into Saturday's game at Connecticut closing in on a 17-year-old school record. He ranks second all-time in tackles for losses with 42.5, eight behind leader Vince Canosa (1992-95). His ability to disrupt an offense has opponents game-planning to neutralize him, either with double teams or simply by running plays in the other direction.
"I don't really care about that," he said. "Not to sound rude about it, but I really don't care if they run the ball away. I got a great group of guys out there that are going to make the plays and that's all I really care about – winning. I've told many people a million times, it's not just about me out there. We have great talent."
The incident involving wideout Fred Lee that sidelined Mack for the opener has been banished to the past.
"My teammates have been very supportive through the process and that's been very helpful, having Fred's support, having everybody's support, and them wanting me to go out there and ball," Mack said. "It's a team effort. It's a family. It's something we've already moved past."
Yet something for which he continues to atone.