Khalil Mack | 6'3, 244 pounds | Outside linebacker | Buffalo
2012 stats: 94 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, eight sacks, four forced fumbles
By the time Khalil Mack's season is over, it's likely his name will be next to a couple NCAA records. He enters the season 19 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles away from having the record.
It's also likely Mack leaves Buffalo with a trophy of two. Mack has been added to the watch lists for the Butkus, Lombardi and Bednarik awards. Out of high school, Mack was a lightly regarded prospect. Initially he was headed to Liberty, an FCS school. But when members of the coaching staff went to Buffalo, Mack went with them.
At Buffalo, Mack has developed into one of the nation's best all-around players on defense. Playing outside linebacker in a 3-4, he's at his best when he can rush upfield. But he's proven to be adept at dropping back in coverage. That combination of skills should give the Mid-American Conference its second consecutive first-round pick after Eric Fisher went No. 1 this year.
What he does well:
When it comes to pure aggression and drive, you'll be hard pressed to find a player that tops Mack. He's constantly on the move, whether it's rushing upfield or dropping back into coverage. He can quickly decipher the direction of cutbacks, bootlegs and misdirection plays. Mack also has a penchant for timing his jumps properly when he can't close in on the quarterback.
Mack's tenacity truly goes from whistle to whistle. When he takes down the runner, he often tries to strip out the football. That has led to 11 career forced fumbles for Mack.
Particularly on option plays, Mack's on-field awareness is evident. He knows when to commit to rushing the quarterback and when to stay on the runner. Mack also shows this same awareness when playing in zone coverage. Because of that, he gets a good break on the ball. To state it simply, Mack has explosion and range, a scary combination.
As a pass rusher, Mack knows how to make himself small. He has the flexibility to lower and turn his shoulders square to the quarterback. That leaves the target small for opposing offensive linemen. This also helps negate an offensive lineman's natural length advantage. As important as it is to have actual "moves" as a pass rusher, this technique is just as important.
What he needs to improve on:
Sometimes Mack's aggressiveness will get the best of him. A good offensive tackle will be able to use Mack's speed against him and driving him around and out of a play. It doesn't happen much against MAC competition, but tackles with quick feet can mirror against him.
It would also be nice to see Mack employ a little more power as a rusher. He's not much of a bull rusher (pardon the pun) and doesn't get a lineman pushing back. That's somewhat surprising considering that Mack shows strength against the run to shed blockers.
It's not something he can improve on technically, but it's worth noting that Mack was suspended for the first game of the 2012 season. He got into a fight with a teammate.
We'll learn a lot about Mack in the first game of the season when Buffalo plays Ohio State. Although Buffalo likes to move Mack from the right to left side throughout the game, he'll go head-to-head with OSU left tackle Jack Mewhort, a possible top 100 pick. Mewhort will test Mack's take-on strength and could give him some trouble.
Ultimately, Mack's draft status will be up for debate until he performs in the Senior Bowl (assuming he gets an invitation). Before last year's Senior Bowl, there were questions about Eric Fisher and his ability to play against top-level competition. Mack will face the same scrutiny. How he overcomes it will determine his draft position.