August 28, 2014

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2014 NFL Draft: Linebacker Khalil Mack was beast at Buffalo, just might be this year’s best defensive player

Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack is seen in a game against Connecticut last season. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack is seen in a game against Connecticut last season. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

University at Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn has seen, heard, felt and lived the impact outside linebacker Khalil Mack can have on a game, a crowd and a program.

Quinn has no doubt that will continue in the NFL, and believes Mack is the top player available in the draft that starts Thursday night. Yes, better than South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

“From my opinion, I think he’s the best,” Quinn told The Chronicle-Telegram on Monday. “When you really break down his game, you find he possesses a lot of rare talents. He can pass rush. He can really change the game by his individual play. He’s very locked in to his assignments. He’s a complete player.”

Mack repeatedly silenced the Ohio Stadium crowd with 2.5 sacks and an interception return for a touchdown in the 2013 opener against Ohio State. He led Buffalo to eight wins and only the second bowl game in school history. He made enough big plays to set a pair of NCAA records and put himself in the discussion as the best defensive player in the draft — NFL.com’s Gil Brandt predicted he’ll go before Clowney.

“He’s definitely the kind of guy who has deep passion,” Quinn said of Mack, who wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school in Florida. “There’s something deep, deep inside. Plus, he’s been blessed with athletic ability. As his body grew, he got bigger, faster, stronger, smarter and it started to come together for him.

“He’s willing to dig deep and go places other athletes won’t go. He challenges himself.”

Quinn wasn’t comparing Mack to Clowney, whose effort has been questioned but remains the favorite to be the No. 1 pick. But Quinn made it clear Mack has all the intangibles NFL owners and general managers seek.

“He’s very humble,” Quinn said. “His upbringing says a lot about who he is as a young man. He has two great parents that taught him the right way.

“What separates him is he enjoys the game, enjoys practicing, enjoys drilling, enjoys film study. He’s always been very coachable. And we could never block him in practice.”

The high character is only part of what makes Mack special and a possibility for the Browns at No. 4 if he’s still around.

He’s 6-foot-2½, 251 pounds, runs a 4.64-second 40-yard dash, broad jumped 10-8 and had a vertical leap of 40 inches. His production matched the measurements.

He started 48 games, totaling 327 tackles, 28.5 sacks, four interceptions and 22 passes defensed. He set an NCAA record with 16 forced fumbles and tied the career mark with 75 tackles for loss.

“No doubt about it, it’s great to be recognized as a record holder in NCAA history, but at the same time it took a lot of hard work and some good teammates over the years to help me get to that point,” Mack said at the scouting combine. “I just want to keep proving myself. I want to be the best. And I strive to be the best at anything I do — whether it was raking the leaves growing up, or whether it was playing Tic-Tac-Toe with my brothers.”

Mack’s march into the top 10 started in earnest Aug. 31 in a 40-20 loss to Ohio State. Buffalo couldn’t pull off the upset, but Mack showed the nation he can dominate on a field filled with talent. He had nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown.

He could no longer be dismissed as a Mid-American Conference sensation.

“I feel like there were a lot of people watching that game. It helped me tremendously,” said Mack, who didn’t face many double teams from the Buckeyes. “I feel it was, sort of, a little disrespect from a schematic approach. But at the same time I wanted to make them pay for it.”

Quinn was proud that everyone else got to see what he had known for years.

“He laid it out there, gave everything he had,” Quinn said. “He knew it was an important game, not just for himself but for the team. We needed him to have a big game and he knew that. He takes a tremendous amount of pride in being one of the top leaders in our program.

“I don’t want to say it was just that week. The guy loves the game, plays the game the right way. He’s the ultimate team player. He had something to prove and he did that. That’s what great competitors do.”

Quinn called Mack “dynamic” and compared his skills to those of Pro Bowlers Von Miller and Clay Matthews and even Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor.

“He’s a fierce hitter,” Quinn said. “He can impact the (offensive) tackle with such great power, strength and coordination it’s impressive. People can feel it throughout the stadium.

“He can twist his body and drop his levels. It’s just impressive watching him. He can turn his body so many different ways it’s really hard to get a solid block on him.”

Quinn will travel to New York City this week to hear Mack’s name get called and watch him shake hands with Commissioner Roger Goodell. He said Mack will have no trouble handling the pressure that comes with being a top pick.

“He’s been humble through the whole process and handled it with great maturity and a positive attitude,” Quinn said. “He’s not caught up in all the hype and hoopla. He knows he has a lot to prove. He’s very grateful for the opportunity. He’s very deserving of the opportunity.

“He’s taking it all in and enjoying himself. You’re going to hear a lot about Khalil in years to come.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.

SCOTT PETRAK’S TOP OF THE CLASS

Offensive linemen

  • Jake Matthews, Texas A&M His dad, Bruce, is a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, and Jake got the good genes. Can start at left tackle immediately.
  • Greg Robinson, Auburn Extremely gifted physically and an excellent run blocker. Needs work in pass protection, but his ceiling is through the roof.
  • Zack Martin, Notre Dame Played left tackle for the Irish but could fit better at guard in NFL. Should be a starter for the next decade.
  • Other notables Taylor Lewan, Michigan; Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama; Xavier Su’a-Filo, UCLA; Marcus Martin, Southern California.
  • How the Browns fit Matthews and/or Robinson could be available at No. 4 and are worth the lofty pick, but Cleveland has All-Pro Joe Thomas at left tackle. The Browns could use more options at guard and possibly an upgrade at right tackle later in the draft.

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