JOHN WAWROW, AP Sports Writer
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Lou Tepper knew exactly what button he could push to motivate linebacker Khalil Mack in the week leading up to Buffalo’s daunting season-opening test against Ohio State last year.
The Bulls defensive coordinator began referring to Mack as: “JAG — Just A Guy.”
“I don’t know who it was, but somebody from (the Buckeyes) staff said he was ‘just a guy,'” said Tepper, the former Illinois head coach who has a lengthy history of developing college linebackers. “So after that, we started to call him all that week a ‘JAG.’ And there’s no question that he was motivated to prove that he belonged.”
Mack can no longer be dismissed.
Beginning with his lights-out performance in a 40-20 loss to the Buckeyes in which he had nine tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and returned an interception for a touchdown, Mack capped a dominating senior season that has him projected to be a top-five selection in the NFL draft next week.
“It was funny,” Mack said this week, recalling Tepper’s motivational ploy. “But even then, I knew what he was trying to do.”
As for the lingering sting of the nickname, Mack said he’s just getting started when it comes to separating himself from the pack.
“That’s the thing. I’m still working hard to prove it,” he said.
He’s accomplished much already during a season in which he helped the Mid-American Conference team earn its second bowl berth. Mack won the Jack Lambert Award and finished second to Alabama’s C.J. Mosley in the Butkus Award voting — both honoring the nation’s top linebackers. He set a conference record with 16 career forced fumbles. His 75 career tackles for a loss tied current Jaguars defensive end Jason Babin’s college numbers, and were the most at the NCAA level since 2000.
At 6-foot-2 and 251 pounds, Mack is touted to have the speed, strength and versatility to play any linebacker position in either a 3-4 or 4-3 system. At the NFL combine in February, Mack topped linebacker prospects in four of six categories: the 40-yard dash (4.65 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (4.18 seconds), vertical jump (40 inches) and broad jump (128 inches).
Though Mack was already on NFL scouts’ radars after considering entering the draft last year, he began upping his value following the game against Ohio State.
Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer was left impressed, saying: “His stock in the draft just went up.”
After struggling a week later in a loss to Baylor, Mack was difficult to contain against MAC competition. He was a one-man wrecking ball in forcing three fumbles and getting three sacks in a late-season win over Miami, Ohio.
NFL general managers, scouts and draft experts have taken notice, too.
“The guy looks like the real deal,” Browns GM Ray Farmer said. “When he got on bigger stages, he demonstrated he could perform.”
Added former Dallas Cowboys executive and NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt: “There’s nine guys that could be the first pick in the draft, and he’s one of the nine guys.”
All 32 teams were represented at Buffalo’ pro day in March. That group included two general managers, Buffalo’s Doug Whaley and Oakland’s Reggie McKenzie, and newly hired Browns coach Mike Pettine.
“The sky’s the limit on him,” Whaley said. “He can do whatever you need him to do.”
Over the past month, Mack limited his predraft visits to six teams, including those owning the first three selections, Houston, St. Louis and Jacksonville. He’s also drawn interest from Atlanta (No. 6 pick) and Detroit (No. 10).
The Bulls, who made the jump to the MAC in 1999, aren’t accustomed to having such attention. Since the NFL merger, no Buffalo player has been drafted higher than the fourth round.
Mack has a history of being overlooked, too.
A devastating knee injury sustained while playing basketball limited him to playing just his senior season at high school in Fort Pierce, Florida. Liberty was the only school to initially offer him a scholarship. The Bulls didn’t become interested until Liberty assistant Robert Wimberly was hired by Buffalo and made Mack an offer.
Mack acknowledged he thought his chances of playing football were over when he injured his knee.
“I felt terrible,” he said. “It was a thing where I knew I had to get ready to do something else with my life that didn’t involve sports.”
Some six years later, Mack is both anxious and eager to start the next chapter of his career.
“To know what I’ve been through, and know what I experienced, this means so much,” Mack said. “If anything, a lot of hard work is paying off.
“I’m trying to embrace this process because it’s only going to happen once. And I’m trying to make the most out of it.”
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