BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Lou Tepper knew exactly what button he could push to motivate linebacker Khalil Mack in the week leading up to Buffalo's daunting season-opening test against Ohio State last year.
The Bulls defensive coordinator began referring to Mack as: "JAG — Just A Guy."
"I don't know who it was, but somebody from (the Buckeyes) staff said he was 'just a guy,'" said Tepper, the former Illinois head coach who has a lengthy history of developing college linebackers. "So after that, we started to call him all that week a 'JAG.' And there's no question that he was motivated to prove that he belonged."
Mack can no longer be dismissed.
Beginning with his lights-out performance in a 40-20 loss to the Buckeyes in which he had nine tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and returned an interception for a touchdown, Mack capped a dominating senior season that has him projected to be a top-five selection in the NFL draft next week.
"It was funny," Mack said this week, recalling Tepper's motivational ploy. "But even then, I knew what he was trying to do."
As for the lingering sting of the nickname, Mack said he's just getting started when it comes to separating himself from the pack.
"That's the thing. I'm still working hard to prove it," he said.
He's accomplished much already during a season in which he helped the Mid-American Conference team earn its second bowl berth. Mack won the Jack Lambert Award and finished second to Alabama's C.J. Mosley in the Butkus Award voting — both honoring the nation's top linebackers. He set a conference record with 16 career forced fumbles. His 75 career tackles for a loss tied current Jaguars defensive end Jason Babin's college numbers, and were the most at the NCAA level since 2000.
At 6-foot-2 and 251 pounds, Mack is touted to have the speed, strength and versatility to play any linebacker position in either a 3-4 or 4-3 system. At the NFL combine in February, Mack topped linebacker prospects in four of six categories: the 40-yard dash (4.65 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (4.18 seconds), vertical jump (40 inches) and broad jump (128 inches).
Though Mack was already on NFL scouts' radars after considering entering the draft last year, he began upping his value following the game against Ohio State.
Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer was left impressed, saying: "His stock in the draft just went up."
After struggling a week later in a loss to Baylor, Mack was difficult to contain against MAC competition. He was a one-man wrecking ball in forcing three fumbles and getting three sacks in a late-season win over Miami, Ohio.