NEW YORK — Khalil Mack sat inside a mid-town Manhattan hotel restaurant late Tuesday looking out on Central Park while day dreaming about Thursday night.
The University at Buffalo linebacker is the best defensive playmaker that few people know about in the 2014 NFL draft. Mack was among 28 of the 30 top draft prospects who arrived in New York on Tuesday.
"What would it be like to be the top pick in the draft? It's a blessing. It's mind boggling to even try to fathom that,'' Mack told USA TODAY Sports. "At the same time, that would be a dream come true.''
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Let's just say Commissioner Roger Goodell has no idea of the crushing hug he'd be in for if Mack, the wrecking-ball from the less-heralded Mid-American Conference hears his name called first when the draft begins Thursday, 8 p.m. ET.
"I'll get the dust off him,'' Mack said, laughing.
Could the Houston Texans, armed with the No. 1 pick, really take the MAC Defensive Player of the Year over South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and quarterbacks Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Central Florida's Blake Bortles?
Sure they could. This is the deepest most uncertain draft in the past decade. Former Dallas Cowboys personnel guru Gil Brandt says Mack has a real shot to emerge the top pick and might be the better fit for Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's 3-4 scheme. The 6-3, 248-pound Mack ended his career with a Football Bowl Subdivision-record 16 forced fumbles and an FBS record-tying 75 tackles for loss.
Mack registered 100 tackles, 10½ sacks and three interceptions last season. He visited six teams selecting in the top 10 the Texans, St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons, Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions.
"There's a lot of different players who could go No. 1, but I know what I'm capable of and I feel like the hard work pays off,'' Mack said. "I was thinking about playing with J.J. Watt the whole time I was in Houston. I'd look forward to playing with him with that work ethic J.J. has.
"J.J. said to me when we met, 'Oh, it's another MAC guy.' (Watt played at Central Michigan before transferring to Wisconsin.)
"It's about playing with people who have the same mindset as you have. And when it comes to winning, I'm the most competitive person there is. I'll do whatever it takes.''
He's blue collar all right, behind-the-scenes blue collar.
Mack would clean the Bulls locker room at night when nobody was watching.
"Nobody knew,'' Mack said. "You have to lead by example whether anybody knows I did it or not, it was just something that keeps you humble. I did it more than once.
"I wanted to help out my equipment man, Dave Borzi because he looks out for me.''
Mack "came pretty close'' to entering the draft as a likely third or fourth round pick last year before his coach Jeff Quinn, with a huge assist from his mother, Yolanda convinced him to return for his senior season and get his degree in psychology.
"I couldn't do that to my mom, couldn't leave school without my degree, couldn't do that to her or myself,'' Mack said.
Across the table, his mother beams.
"He's an amazing child, we're very proud,'' said Yolanda, a teacher in Fort Pierce, Fla. "He will do a phenomenal job at the next level.
"An education was always very important for Khalil. That's why he didn't play a lot of sports in school.''
The former Fort Pierce Westwood High power forward was sitting in chemistry class when he got summoned outside by a legendary coach named Waides Ashmon.
"He asked if I wanted to play football my junior year,'' Mack said.
Best decision Mack ever made. He's invited Ashmon to attend the draft Thurdsay at Radio City Music Hall to repay the favor.
Outside in the hotel lobby, Mack's competition for the top pick, Clowney casts an imposing presence with his 6-5, 274-pound frame as he mingles with his fellow prospects.
"I'd love to be that No. 1 pick,'' Clowney told USA TODAY Sports. "It's something I've dreamed about for a long time.''
Sounds just like Mack.
"He's a cool dude,'' Mack said. "We all want each other to do well.''
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