TAMPA — Khalil Mack couldn’t find many suitors coming out of high school in Fort Pierce five years ago.
Now, everyone wants him.
With a rare blend of speed and power that represents an intoxicating brew for NFL coaches and general managers, the University of Buffalo linebacker is vying with South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney to be the first defensive player off the board in the May 8-10 draft.
“The sky’s the limit on him,” Bills GM Doug Whaley said. “Khalil Mack can do whatever you need him to do.”
Mack has already set records, and he’s poised to make a little more history Thursday night when he becomes the first Bulls player since the 1970 merger to be drafted earlier than the fourth round.
There are few questions surrounding Mack’s potential impact at the pro level ... except where to play him.
At 6-foot-2 and a chiseled 251 pounds, Mack played outside linebacker in Buffalo’s 3-4 scheme. He announced his arrival on the national scene in the 2013 season opener, terrorizing Ohio State with 2.5 sacks, nine tackles and a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Despite Buffalo’s lightweight schedule (Stony Brook, Massachusetts, Kent State, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan), NFL scouts walked away each week raving about Mack’s athleticism.
NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock labels Mack the No. 1 can’t-miss prospect in the draft, noting that he plays with an edge.
That chip was formed in 2009, when Mack generated scant attention coming out of Westwood High, where a knee injury in his junior season relegated Mack to only one year of prep football.
His only scholarship offers came from Liberty University and Buffalo — where he became the first Bull since former New York Jets standout Gerry Philbin in 1964 to be invited to the Senior Bowl.
“I feel like there is a lot more that I have to prove,” Mack said, “especially coming out of the (Mid-American Conference). That won’t change until they get to feel what you can do coming off the edge and hitting them in the mouth.”
Mack likes to compare himself to Denver linebacker Von Miller, a fierce pass rusher, and his game has also been likened to Aldon Smith of San Francisco, who led the NFC with 19.5 sacks in 2012.
Mack tied an NCAA mark with 75 career tackles for loss, and he ranks No. 1 all-time with 16 forced fumbles. Those are the kind of numbers that undoubtedly have caught the eye of new Bucs head coach Lovie Smith, who craves takeaways and disruption.
Sitting at No. 3, four spots ahead of Tampa Bay, the Jaguars covet a player with Mack’s potential impact.
“He’s one of those guys you feel like is going to play for a long time ... just extremely talented,” said Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley, who used to tutor Tampa Bay’s linebackers as a member of Jon Gruden’s staff. “There’s so many different positions you can put him in. I know that each team probably looks at Khalil Mack and says, ‘We have a place for him.’ ”
According to Gruden, Mack is probably a better fit for a 3-4 club like the Texans, who own the first overall pick.
“In a 4-3, my biggest concern is, where do you play him?’’ Gruden said. “I think Mack’s an edge player. He’s most effective at the line of scrimmage, as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 or as a nickel pass rusher playing defensive end. In a pure 4-3, I don’t know that you would want him as a base end. I think he fits the 3-4 schemes the best.”
Mack, who posted 28.5 sacks at Buffalo, said he is versatile enough to play either outside linebacker or defensive end at the next level.
“I don’t want to limit myself,” said Mack, who was limited to a combined 10 tackles and zero sacks in Buffalo’s losses to Baylor and San Diego State (Famous Idaho Potato Bowl).
NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell gives Mack a better draft rating than Clowney, saying he is perfect for a 3-4 defense that needs a dynamic force off the edge. ESPN analyst Merril Hoge says Mack will make an immediate impact, wherever he lands.
“He runs like a safety and explodes off the edge,” Mayock said. “I have yet to find a hole in his game. In today’s NFL, guys that have natural edge rush ability are like gold. You’ve got to get them when they are available.”