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New UVa assistant watched Buffalo's Mack grow into potential No. 1 pick

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Posted: Thursday, May 8, 2014 12:15 am

Courtesy of Jappy Oliver, Khalil Mack’s name has been a regular to the Virginia football practice field and meetings rooms this spring.

“I have brought him up,” Oliver said, “of course.”

There’s Mack’s hands.

“Great hands,” Oliver said.

There’s Mack’s speed.

“As he got bigger and stronger, he got faster,” Oliver said.

There’s Mack’s desire.

“He’s got some dog in him,” Oliver said. “You don’t get that good by not having some dog in ya.”

And there’s Mack’s high pro potential.

The NFL Draft begins tonight. Come 8 p.m., commissioner Roger Goodell will officially put the Houston Texans on the clock for the first pick.

The pride of the Buffalo Bulls will be anxiously waiting. So will UVa’s defensive line coach.

“It’s awesome,” Oliver said.

Mack is a 6-foot-3, 251-pound outside linebacker from the University of Buffalo pegged to be a top-5 pick.

Oliver arrived in Charlottesville in January after a four-year stint as Buffalo’s assistant head coach, defensive line coach and professional liaison.

In other words, he had a front row seat to the development of this Draft season’s biggest riser.

Mack’s gone from the Mid-American Conference to, potentially, the AFC South.

“You got to understand Mack,” Oliver said during a phone conversation Tuesday afternoon. “He’s a kid who came from Fort Pierce, Fla. Whether he was overlooked, I don’t know. He came to Buffalo probably about 215. There’s a lot of good players that come out of Florida. He really didn’t have very many offers. I think he had one at Liberty and Buffalo. That was it. He chose Buffalo. And once he got here, he made himself into a player.

“I never saw anybody that worked harder on and off the field. We had a great strength coach. Mack trained the right way.

“He’s just a special young man.”

In four years with the Bulls, Mack made 327 tackles, including an NCAA-record 75 for loss, with 28.5 sacks. He made four interceptions, forced an NCAA-record 16 fumbles and recovered four of them.

He was a first-team All-American as a senior, stepping into the national spotlight with a nine-tackle, 2.5-sack, interception-return-for-a-touchdown performance against then-No. 2 Ohio State on Aug. 31.

“I think it did a lot,” Oliver said. “When you’re coming from the MAC, in other peoples’ eyes, you don’t compare to big-time football. ... He got a chance to prove to other people how good he was because he went against what they consider higher competition and just dominated the whole game.”

When asked how Mack compares to Eli Harold, Oliver said UVa’s resident explosive edge rusher still has some work to do.

“In terms of coming off the ball, I love Eli’s quickness,” Oliver said. “In terms of the power and the strength, he’s got a little ways to go to catch up to Mack. Mack is what you call country strong, just country strong.

“I don’t think I ever saw him drink anything but water. He walked around with a gallon of water. He didn’t have a six-pack. He might have had an eight-pack, just ripped.”

And ready for the NFL.

“Khalil Mack is a dominant force both versus the run and in the passing game,” said Todd McShay, ESPN’s Draft analyst who has Mack going No. 5 to the Oakland Raiders. “He reminds me a lot of [Green Bay Packers four-time Pro Bowl linebacker] Clay Matthews, that versatility to play on the line or off the line.

“I think if you polled all 32 general managers right now and said ‘Where would you take Clay Matthews?’ They’d say ‘top-5 pick.’ I think that’s exactly where Khalil Mack’s going to wind up being taken.”

Sports Illustrated’s Peter King has Mack going No. 1 to the Texans, forging a connection between Oliver and the Houston franchise. 

“I know [Houston general manager] Rick Smith,” Oliver said. “He’s a Purdue grad. I’m a Purdue grad.  One of his top scouts is a guy I coached with at Vanderbilt, Ed Lambert.

“Ed Lambert and I went back and forth with this quite a bit. So I am biased and I would take Mack because I can vouch for everything — on the field, off the field.”

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