AS A ROOKIE, KHALIL MACK WAS ONE OF THE NFL'S BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYERS. SO WHY DID THE RAIDERS SWITCH HIS POSITION? BECAUSE THEY BELIEVE HE CAN BE AN ALL-TIME GREAT PASS RUSHER
TO PREVENT Dwyane Wade wannabes from hanging from the rims on their basketball court, the elders at the Miracle Prayer Temple in Fort Pierce, Fla., had the goals mounted at 11 feet. This failed to stop the 15-year-old Khalil Mack from dunking on those hoops. So claimed the Raiders defensive end after a recent practice, and we are inclined to believe him. At the 2014 NFL scouting combine, three months before Oakland snatched him with the fifth pick, Mack popped a 40-inch vertical jump.
He recalled his days at the Miracle Prayer Temple, where his family still worships, while walking off the practice field last Thursday. Behind him, the names emblazoned along a fence, was a roll call of Raiders Hall of Famers, from Jim Otto, George Blanda and Fred Biletnikoff to Howie Long, Marcus Allen and Tim Brown. Of course, it's still ridiculously early—just a month into Mack's sophomore NFL season—to begin updating the signage, but the buzz building around him is that he has the talent and temperament to eventually end up in that company.
This turn of events would have stunned the younger Mack, whose passion was basketball. But there came the fateful Sunday, during a break in Bible study and with a small crowd watching, when he set out to demonstrate his dunking prowess. He was not thinking of Proverbs 16:18—Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall—as he planted his foot to leap.
"I was trying to show everybody," says Mack, "but as soon as I jumped, it tore off the bone."
It being the patellar tendon attaching his left kneecap to his tibia. "We heard something pop, and he went down. I almost passed out," recalls Khalil's father, Sandy. "But I had to stay strong—I didn't want him to know I was freaking out on the inside."
That injury, which terminated Mack's high school hoops career, proved to be a blessing. Mack was a junior at Westwood High when then football coach Waides Ashmon summoned him from chemistry class. Even though Mack didn't play a varsity sport, he was a ferocious workout warrior—always had been. When Khalil was eight, Sandy recalls, he could drop and knock out 50 uninterrupted push-ups. At 17, he was built like Apollo Creed. Ashmon noticed. "What do I have to do," he asked Mack, "to get you on my football field?"
"I'll play, as long as my dad says it's O.K.," he told Ashmon, who cold-called Sandy right there in the corridor. Mack père's concerns were academic: He wanted his son to graduate. Football, he worried, might distract Khalil from his studies. Football, countered Ashmon, would get him into college.
He was right, but it was no sure thing. A steady stream of recruiters passed through Westwood during fall 2008, Mack's single season. But they were there to woo all-state defensive end Luther Robinson and quarterback Isaac Virgin, who signed with Miami and South Florida, respectively. Mack's athleticism was off the charts—he had 140 tackles for the Panthers—but he was so raw that most coaches were scared off.
Robert Wimberly felt sure that Mack would metamorphose, once he'd been coached up, into a monster. Wimberly was an assistant at Liberty, an FCS program in Lynchburg, Va., who'd studied the kid on film. After visiting the Mack family at their modest duplex in Fort Pierce, Wimberly secured a verbal commitment from the senior—not surprising, considering how comfortable Khalil and his parents, Yolanda and Sandy, felt with Liberty's emphasis on Christian values. Also, Mack had no other offers.
Wimberly did worry that some big-time program would finally see what he was seeing and swoop in to snatch Mack from him. "In the last two weeks of recruiting," he says, "we lose a lot of guys to FBS schools."
In the end Liberty did lose Mack. In January '09, Turner Gill hired Wimberly to coach linebackers at Buffalo. The Bulls had just won the MAC championship and were coming off the program's best season in a half century. Clued in by Wimberly, Gill sold Mack on Buffalo. After his son took his official visit, "in January, with four feet of snow on the ground," Sandy recalls, "he came back and said he wanted to go to Buffalo."
KEN NORTON JR. is 49 now, his bowlegged gait featuring a pronounced limp. "Can't a grown man have a sore knee without needin' a new one?" he asks, with feigned irritation, when the subject of his bum right knee arises. Norton, Oakland's first-year defensive coordinator, played 13 NFL seasons at linebacker, winning three Super Bowls and appearing in three Pro Bowls. His role, as he sees it, is to help Mack manifest his greatness, of which he's seen glimpses, and to be a bit of a wet blanket along the way.
Norton and his boss, coach Jack Del Rio, played a combined 24 NFL seasons at linebacker. After collaborating this past off-season, they concluded that the 6'3", 250-pound Mack—who played outside linebacker as a rookie—would be better utilized at defensive end. "We felt the more we could rush him, the more we could get him going after the quarterback, the better off he would be," says Norton. "Because as good a linebacker as he is, he's really good rushing the passer."
Yes, Mack's sack numbers were light last season. No, that doesn't mean he was ineffective. Not remotely. Pro Football Focus credited him with 40 hurries, ranking him second in the league among 4--3 outside linebackers. And that was only half his game. "He's a great pass rusher, but he's [also] really good in the run game," Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer effused last October. Palmer, not known for hyperbole, described Mack as "phenomenal."
Seconding that motion was, among others, ex-NFL running back and ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, who last November judged Mack to be "the best linebacker in the National Football League, and ... the best against the run." If not the best, he was right in the conversation: Of Mack's 75 tackles in 2014, 52 of them were for a loss, or within three yards of the line of scrimmage. His 11½ "stuffs"—tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage—ranked second in the league, behind Texans end J.J. Watt.
"I've never seen a guy in his second year with his ability," says Oakland linebacker Curtis Lofton, now in his eighth pro season. "There's really no ceiling for him."
True, many of the best pass rushers the game has known have been taller, rangier: Deacon Jones, Reggie White, Richard Dent, DeMarcus Ware. But some aren't. "Look at Lawrence Taylor, Derrick Thomas, Von Miller," says Norton. "Those guys aren't 6'5". But they had great timing, they read the offensive tackle really well. They had a knack."
Norton isn't saying Mack could be the next LT or Derrick Thomas or any of that Hall of Fame crew. He's saying the 24-year-old has the wherewithal to get there—the physical tools plus "the intangibles. He's serious. He's purposeful. He understands that he's been given a gift." In addition to mentoring him, elder Raiders statesmen and defenders such as Justin Tuck and Charles Woodson also remind Mack that he's still learning how to use his gifts. "As much as everybody wants to talk about how good he is," Norton goes on, "they're there to say, Hey, you really haven't done anything. Two sacks this year, four last year. Really? I mean, come on."
Mack notched his third sack of this season in the fourth quarter of Oakland's last-second, 22--20 loss in Chicago on Sunday. But his biggest play may have come on the previous series, when he pressured quarterback Jay Cutler into a flutterball interception snared by Woodson. On another key play Mack flushed Cutler up in the pocket and into the arms of Aldon Smith, who picked up his first sack of the season.
Smith is the talented but troubled ex-49er who was cut loose by that club in August, following his arrest on DUI, hit-and-run and vandalism charges. (Smith denies the allegations.) It was his fifth arrest since 2012; for these latest charges he was scheduled to be arraigned on Oct. 6. While Smith's presence on the field presents a conundrum for opposing offensive lines—"You gotta pick your poison," Mack notes—his presence in Oakland's locker room is a reminder of how dramatically the cultures, the identities, of the NFL's Bay Area clubs have flip-flopped in recent years. The Raiders, who long cultivated an image as the bad boys of the league, have let the 49ers pull well ahead in one undesirable statistic: With 12 arrests dating to January 2012, San Francisco has served as a kind of halfway house for NFL hard cases.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the teams are going in opposite directions as well. The one that played in three straight NFC title games between the 2011 and '13 seasons is 1--3 and atrocious on offense, where the weekly regression of quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been grimly fascinating. Meanwhile, across the Bay, the team that so recently stank is 2--2 and looking like a playoff contender, as Derek Carr—the grandson of Pentecostal pastors—has, in just his second season, shown the stuff of a franchise quarterback. Don't tell the dog-collared, spike-shouldered denizens of the Black Hole, but the cornerstones of the franchise once known for its outlaw ethos are a couple of choirboys more comfortable in a prayer circle than in a bar.
WE TRIED our best," says Sandy, "to raise our boys to have respect for not just us, but for others. So often when kids leave home, they act in a way where people don't want to see 'em coming. I don't want that to be said about my boys."
Khalil, in that case, is batting .500. While he tries to be respectful to everyone he meets, there are plenty of people who don't want to see him coming: mostly offensive tackles, but also tight ends, running backs and quarterbacks.
Yes, Mack arrived in Buffalo raw as eggs but also equipped with "focus and purpose and goals and a plan," recalls Wimberly. "A lot of colleges had passed on him, and he wanted to prove those people wrong."
That first summer in western New York, recalls Branden Oliver, the Chargers running back who met Mack on the same snowbound recruiting trip, "we worked out so much, running hills, pushing sleds, pushing each other. We would always do more than the coaches asked." Following team torture sessions "we'd put in some more work or come back at night," says Oliver. "There really wasn't that much else to do."
After Mack's redshirt season Gill took the coaching job at Kansas, bringing Wimberly with him. Buffalo's new DC was William Inge, who remembers that even then Mack was so disruptive that the coach often had to ask the scout team to run the same play a second time, "so the rest of our defense could see it develop and get a clearer picture of how it was supposed to look."
Mack's third defensive coordinator, after Inge took a job with the NFL's Bills in 2012, was the well-travelled Lou Tepper, whose 45-year career included six as coach at Illinois (1991 through '96). Having coached no fewer than three winners of the Butkus Award, bestowed annually on the nation's top linebacker—Alfred Williams at Colorado and Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy at Illinois—Tepper rightly considers himself a connoisseur of the position. Indeed, he's written the book on it: Complete Linebacking.
Tepper tends to divide 'backers into two groups: the elite pass rushers—in addition to Williams, he had Bruce Smith at Virginia Tech and Simeon Rice at Illinois—and the better-rounded linebackers who were hammers against the run: Hardy, Howard, Mike Johnson, Brady James.
Mack, he says, is the only linebacker he's had "who could fit in with either of those groups." As gifted as he was, though, the young man's talents did not extend to every sport. Upon introducing the new coordinator to the team, then coach Jeff Quinn mentioned that Tepper was an excellent racquetball player. Mack, who'd played some spirited matches with his father, followed up on that, asking Tepper during a linebackers meeting, "Coach, this racquetball thing. Would you actually play real athletes, like us?"
A match was arranged. With a fair number of Mack's teammates looking on from the balcony, the 67-year-old Tepper won all three games: "Fifteen-love, 15--4, 15--2," the coach recalls. "His shirt was soaked. Mine was dry as a bone." Pride goeth before destruction....
TALK TO the people in Mack's life, and you're going to hear some Scripture. In addition to his trove of linebacking tips, Tepper shared with Mack a verse from Philippians: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather in humility value others above yourself.
By his senior season at Buffalo, his humility notwithstanding, he was earning a reputation as one of the best players in country—on either side of the ball. In Buffalo's opener, a 40--20 loss at Ohio State, he had 9½ tackles, including 2½ sacks and a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown. "He is a fantastic football player," raved Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer. "He could play at any school in America."
His stock keeps rising. If the NFL somehow agreed to a do-over of the 2014 draft, Mack would likely be taken ahead of at least three of the four players who went ahead of him: Jadeveon Clowney in Houston, Greg Robinson in St. Louis and Sammy Watkins in Buffalo. The Jaguars, who desperately needed a quarterback, might stick with Blake Bortles. Or, watching Mack's tape, they might not.
"He had a wonderful humility," Tepper remembers. "And I hope all the adulation and money doesn't change him."
Not to worry, Lou. Mack remains the same homebody who "never did seek a lot of attention," Yolanda recalls.
He's not the type of guy who's going to make a few plays, and it's gonna go to his head," Norton assures. "He's smart. He's serious. He's here to do something."
He respects the gift.
"THERE'S REALLY NO CEILING FOR HIM," SAYS LOFTON.
Photograph by Jeff Singer for Sports Illustrated
PAUL KITAGAKI JR./SACRAMENTO BEE/ZUMAPRESS.COM
OUT OF ORDER After a stellar career at Buffalo (below), Mack was the fifth choice in the 2014 draft; the first four teams to pick might now want a do-over.
[See caption above]
DAVID E. KLUTHO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SIDE JOB Vets such as Tuck (91) on the resurgent Raiders make sure Mack knows that for all his talent, he still has a lot to learn.