Recalling The Arrival Of Buffalo's Dynamic Duo
By Bill Lund
It was late January, back in 2009, and the recruiting cycle was winding down when Turner Gill, then head coach at the University at Buffalo, decided we needed to scholarship a second running back. Serving as a defensive graduate assistant (2008-2010), I combed through numerous videos those final days to find a back we felt would fit our offense and help solidify a position that would soon be vacated by James Starks. Like most programs, we knew what physical traits we desired in a running back to fit our offense. Most of the backs on the current roster were 5-foot-9, 210 pounds or bigger, and there were a number of talented players who fit the mold of the type of back we wanted.
When I popped in the film from Miami Southridge High, Branden Oliver jumped off the screen. He showed great speed, but his quickness and agility where dizzying. Oliver also ran with a level of power we coveted. His only drawback was his size: 5-8, 185. I loved his skill set and ability; he was a potential gamebreaker in my opinion. My concern was whether I would be laughed at or lauded.
Once I vetted the needed information, I took his film to our running backs coach, Lee Chambers, to get his opinion. Coach Chambers felt the same way about “Bo” as I did, so it was passed on to Coach Gill. With Gill’s blessing, Danny Barrett, our offensive coordinator who was in Miami recruiting, went to Southridge with an offer in hand; on the final week of recruiting, Oliver was on a plane visiting Buffalo.
Khalil Mack was a linebacker prospect out of Westwood High in Fort Pierce, another under-the-radar talent from the fertile recruiting grounds of south Florida. Mack was an impressive physical specimen as a senior. A 6-3, 220-pound linebacker, Mack carried himself physically as if he were a seasoned college veteran. We recruited him to solidify a unit that needed an explosive player and Mack fit the bill.
On his recruiting visit to the Bulls football offices, we put a full-court press to secure his services. Mack entered into Gill's office, his favorite song of the time, "Danger" by Mystikal, playing in the background. After his one-on-one conversation with the head coach, all the coaches surrounded Mack, each one sharing a compelling anecdote to convince Mack that Buffalo was his future home. If I could compare it to anything, it was much like asking your girlfriend for her hand in marriage in public; it’s tough to say "no" with such a powerful display of love, and with everyone watching.
The 2008 MAC championship and an International Bowl appearance only added credibility to the sales pitch.
That first season, Oliver and Mack were redshirted and honed their skills on the scout teams. Oliver gave our defense fits with his quickness and speed, while Mack showed flashes of things to come facing one of the best offenses in the MAC. As the season was coming to an end, we held a Scout Team Bowl. It was an opportunity for redshirted and backup players to compete against one another in front of the staff. Watching Oliver and Mack compete so fiercely was a sign of things to come. The 2009 season did not finish with a second bowl appearance, but the future looked bright for the Bulls.
Then, in January, 2010, Gill took the top spot at Kansas. As it is in MAC football, head coaching change is inevitable. It’s a decision that affects the remaining coaches and players because of the uncertainty created when change happens. A few of the players chose to leave, others remained -- including Oliver and Mack, and their decision to stay and play for new coach Jeff Quinn has proven to be wise one. They have blossomed to become two of the best players in the MAC.
In 2011, Oliver broke the single-season rushing record set by Starks, rushing for 1,395 yards on a record 306 carries.
Mack has become a two-time first-team All-MAC linebacker and was an honorable mention All-American the last two seasons. He is currently the NCAA's active leader in career tackles for a loss with 53.
It has been four years since Khalil Mack and Branden Oliver arrived on the Buffalo campus, and both have had their share of personal growth. Coaching changes, injury issues for Oliver, and a game suspension for Mack to open the 2012 season have been all part of their maturation processes. Now, they enter their senior seasons with clear-cut goals.
Oliver's focus is on staying healthy for a full season. A consummate team player, even when asked about where he could go in the 2014 NFL draft, Oliver told me, "I don't know what the scouts are saying, I'm just trying to stay focused on my last year." If he does match his 2011 season, Oliver will have scouts taking a hard look into his dynamic ability. He may end up as a late-round prospect, but given the right situation, he could be a late-round gem for some NFL team.
Mack has been on the NFL radar for a while and another big year could push him into the first two days of the draft. He considered entering the 2013 draft, but Mack chose to stay at Buffalo for his senior season. "My biggest reason for returning was coming back to finish my degree and to compete for a MAC championship," said Mack.
Mack is hoping his play not only helps the Bulls return to Ford Field but moves him up the draft boards."My feedback from scouts has been very positive. As far as rounds and positions go, I'm not sure except that I am expected be an outside linebacker," Mack said.
Branden Oliver and Khalil Mack arrived on the heels of a conference championship, and nothing would be more fulfilling for each of them than to acheive that goal again. Should Oliver and Mack accomplish their respective goals, scouts will be making the trek to western New York to see that this dynamic duo has what it takes to make it in the NFL.