Last season, the MAC made history when Eric Fisher was selected #1 overall by the Kansas City Chiefs out of Central Michigan. This year, they have a number of talented prospects but the best of the bunch is Khalil Mack out of Buffalo. Mack was a great player last year but made everyone in college football and the NFL Draft community take notice with his game against Ohio State. The 6’3″ 245lb Mack went from nice player beating up on competition in the MAC to consistently disrupting the offense of a top 5 ranked team. Yes, Mack was that dominant against the Buckeyes and yes, he does have issues he needs to continue to work to improve.
Mack is going to be an intriguing player because the Bulls run him as an outside linebacker and leo backer depending on where they line up their three man front, which fits a large number of NFL teams. He has also been used as a 5-tech defensive end in situations, so the Bulls defense makes it hard for teams to key on a particular position to take him away, but they certainly take notice where he is at all times.
Mack had success going up against tackles Jack Mewhort and Taylor Decker as well as some of the interior linemen for Ohio State. Decker is clearly the weaker of the two and really had some struggles in the game and not just against Mack. Mewhort is highly thought of in some circles but this game may have exposed how far he still has to go as a player.
To his credit, part of the reason Mack had success was because he used an array of moves to keep opponents off balance. Mack really sets the tone by using his bull rush with remarkable strength and ferocity. Often times, Mack shows speed and converts to power to catch the opponent playing high, catching him under his pads and potentially knocking them off balance. When it came to attacking inside on the guards, Mack creates as momentum as possible and hits them with a punch that impacts like a wrecking ball. Mack was able to collapse the pocket against four different opponents along the offensive line and really set himself up for a second move in some situations as well as just coming free and being able to chase the ball. At times, he was able to convert this into getting pressure on Braxton Miller as well as on the Buckeye running game. There were also examples where Mack lost track of the football and was caught out of position. The aggressiveness certainly bore out with more success and the sheer intensity he is able to use will make people forgive some bad plays, but with more experience, he should get better in this area as well.
Mack is also able to use speed and a nice burst to go outside and run the arc around the tackle. He is able to use a rip move as well as dip under and get pressure. The concern for Mack is when he is caught and the tackle is able to get his hands on and establish the block. So much of what allows Mack to be effective is his ability to dictate the action. In most situations, he was delivering a hit and the Ohio State linemen were catching and reacting. They were concerned about what Mack could do and instead of taking the action to him and being aggressive, they played into his hands. The times they were able to lock on and block him, he had trouble shedding. Going forward, it will be worth watching to see if and how he opts to try to disengage from blocks and what happens when an opposing tackle decides to consistently take the action to Mack.
The biggest play of the game for Mack was the interception which he returned for a touchdown. Mack did everything right on this play and it resulted in basically the perfect play. He attacked up field, anticipated the offensive tackle going for the cut block, and protected his legs. Mewhort did a poor job disguising his intentions and gave away the play, giving Mack the instant he needed to adjust, jump backwards with his legs while propping his arms on Mewhort for balance, which drove him into the ground while keeping Mack up and ready to make the play. Miller put the ball right in Mack’s breadbasket and Mack reacted by catching it and taking off toward the end zone. He basically took off straight at the front pylon in the end zone and was able to stretch the ball out and clip the end zone before he was taken down and pushed out of bounds simultaneously. Mack is a terrific athlete and it made the play possible in terms of the run back, but everything about the play was exactly how a coach would draw it up. He executed the techniques perfectly and the Bulls got a touchdown.
Mack is an aggressive run defender and shows some good instincts as well as the ability to take on blocks, but he does have trouble shedding. While reading the play and sliding into position, Mack does a good job of using his long arms to keep the opponent out from getting into his body. He will give all-out effort and chase plays down from behind, but even against opposing tight ends, Mack had some troubles getting off of blocks. He is successful by being able to keep opponents off balance and avoiding ever being blocked in the first place. The times he is blocked, he really expends a lot of energy trying to fight and try to make a play. Mack also displays pretty good range and can move laterally to get in position to make plays with the possibility of taking down opposing plays from the back side.
When all was said and done, Mack had compiled 7 solo tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and an interception that he took back for a touchdown. Other than somehow winning the game, Mack probably could have not had a better day in terms of getting his name out there against the best opponent he will see all season. As good as he was, Mack had the chance to secure another sack, but Miller was able to get out of his grip and make escape with his legs.
While it remains to be seen how often they will play against each other, Mack and the Bulls play Baylor next week and Cyril Richardson is a big, athletic offensive tackle that could really be a great matchup. It is hard to imagine he will have quite the same level of success he did in Columbus, but he should continue to have a major impact on the opposing offense and cause them to contain what he does. For Mack’s sake, he needs to keep working on his ability to take on and shed blocks, but his junkyard dog style playing the position is going to net him a ton of fans as this season progresses. The most exciting possibility could be seeing Mack end up playing in the Senior Bowl, where scouts and draftniks can watch him up close and personal work against some of the best offensive linemen in the country all week. It is easy to say Mack will be a first round pick after the game he had and the potential is certainly there for that, but he does have issues he needs to continue to improve to ensure that happens.