The NFL careers of Khalil Mack and Jadeveon Clowney are off to much different starts. Did the paths they took shape them into the players they are today?

By Robert Klemko
September 13, 2016
Robert Beck

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Justice Cunningham was on the sideline when he heard it. Some of his South Carolina teammates said it sounded like a gunshot. The 54,527 fans at the 2013 Outback Bowl in Tampa looked around as one, scanning the field for the source.

“It got electric,” says Cunningham, a tight end. “I was on the sideline trying to get my head together. You heard that pop, looked up and said, What happened?”

Sophomore Jadeveon Clowney had just skated between blockers and struck Michigan tailback Vincent Smith in the backfield, dislodging the ball and Smith’s helmet, and scooped up the fumble in almost the same motion. The play would become known as “the Hit.”

Ten months later and 1,200 miles north, a smattering of fans dotted the seats at University of Buffalo Stadium as a light rain fell during UB’s game against UMass. The week before, defensive line coach Jappy Oliver had been goading fifth-year linebacker Khalil Mack about Minutemen offensive tackle Anthony Dima, who was pegged as a potential NFL draft pick. On second‑and‑10 Mack motioned as though he would sprint around the edge, then abruptly planted his foot and shoved the 300-pound Dima, lifting him skyward.

“I swear to you,” says Oliver, “he lifted this kid totally off the ground. We froze the tape the next day to make sure.”

Clowney, once the No. 1 recruit in the nation, had long been the sort of athlete you might design in a video game, an illogical combination of size (6' 6", 270) and speed (4.5 40 time). He was a legend before he ever stepped foot onto the field in Columbia, S.C., and for three years his biggest moments were broadcast nationally (and, in the case of the Hit, endlessly) on highlight shows. An edge rusher at South Pointe High (Rock Hill, S.C.), he had been recruited by every institution of higher education from Tuscaloosa to Cambridge. (Yes, Harvard threw its hat into the ring.) When he chose South Carolina over Alabama and Clemson, it was broadcast on national television. Mack was an under-recruited workout warrior at Fort Pierce (Fla.) Westwood High, a two-star prospect who didn’t get a single offer from a Power 5 conference school. He settled for Buffalo of the Mid-American Conference. Clowney’s and Mack’s paths didn’t converge until draft night 2014, when they were the top two defensive selections in the draft.

One NFL general manager whose team had a top 10 pick that year put the contrast this way: “One of them you felt had all the intangibles you look for, and the other was an absolute freak.”

Three years later, as a new NFL season begins, the paths of Clowney and Mack have diverged. Mack, a Raider, is an unquestioned superstar. Clowney, in Houston, is a question mark. Were those high school and college years, full of adulation, enabling and the shortcuts made possible by his rare physical gifts, a detriment to Clowney’s development? Conversely, did a five-year grind in anonymity make Mack the player he is today? What’s the difference between a college career that quietly crescendos and one that roars unceasingly? And for NFL teams, is there a lesson to be learned?

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Kevin D. Liles

“In many ways it’s a classic tale,” says Phil Savage, former Browns general manager who is now executive director of the Senior Bowl. “Here’s one player who has been rated at the top all the way through his career, and he was not really pushed to become a great player in college. He had some great flashes, but he was physically more developed than everybody. On the other hand, here’s a guy who is completely underrated in high school, excels without the benefit of a top-notch strength-and-conditioning program, and you say, ‘Wow, we think this guy’s got a huge ceiling.’ ”

Clowney and Mack met at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis before the 2014 draft. There was a recurring joke among the high-profile prospects that year, at the expense of Clowney. A rumor being fanned by NFL writers at the time had the Bills trading up to the No. 1 spot. Clowney, the consensus prediction to be the first pick and a lifelong resident of South Carolina, batted away taunts from his fellow prospects about his future in winters of lake-effect snow. “There was all the talk about different people moving up and down, and everybody kept messing with Clowney,” Mack says. “He was like, ‘Bruh, I’m not going to Buffalo.’ ” Mack, of course, had already made the move north. A native of Fort Pierce, Fla., he had spent the previous five years attending college in the city that experiences upward of 90 inches of snow annually.

Clowney had been productive in his freshman and sophomore seasons with the Gamecocks, with 21 sacks and an eye-popping 35.5 tackles for loss, but the Hit brought something new. When he returned to campus for the spring semester after the Outback Bowl, students mobbed him, asking for selfies. Friends and confidants told him he should have been the No. 1 pick in 2013, forget 2014. In March, Clowney took out a $5 million insurance policy on his body to guard against injury in his final collegiate season. That summer, coaches grew concerned he might seriously consider sitting out the season. Lorenzo Ward, then the Gamecocks’ defensive coordinator, volunteered to visit Clowney’s family in their hometown of Rock Hill, S.C. By the time he left dinner with Clowney’s mother and grandparents at a Cracker Barrel, he was satisfied that Clowney would play. “You’re talking about a kid who was 20 years old,” Ward says. “Did he buy into all that hype? I’m sure it affected him some.”

Says Clowney, “I always believed in myself.”

By the time Clowney returned for his junior season, opponents were ready for him. Their plan: throw bodies at him. Between his breakout sophomore season and his whirlwind junior year, Clowney had not learned the art of rushing the passer, and coaches never pressed him to learn it. Ward and his assistants had a phrase they’d repeat to linebackers and safeties playing behind Clowney—a mantra for operating around a player who relied on instinct: Make him right. In other words, if Clowney’s assignment was to set the edge but instead he darted inside, adjust your assignment.

Reminded of those three words after a recent practice on a steamy August day in Houston, Clowney flashed a wide grin. “ ‘Make Jadeveon right’ means, Just play ball,” he said. “I mean, I line up in the defense and try to get to the ball, make a play, going inside, outside. Me and my linebackers had a good feel off each other. In the NFL, everything works together. If one guy’s wrong in the defense, [the opponent] can break out.”

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Kevin Tanaka/AP

Mack’s time at Buffalo began with considerably less fanfare than Clowney’s in Columbia—and a lot more pain. After a string of injuries in high school, including a torn left patellar tendon, he played one full prep season and led the team in tackles. Coaches at Buffalo stuck the 210‑pounder at middle linebacker in 2009.

Mack, who has since grown to a ripped 250 pounds, recalls playing on the scout team, stepping up to meet runs up the gut and taking daily punishment from 250-pound senior fullback Lawrence Rolle. “Playing scout against him, I definitely got my mind right,” Mack says. “They just ran ISO over and over and over. I’m like hnnnnngggg. Then one day he came up to me before practice and said, ‘All right, it’s Thursday. Just relax.’ I’m like, ‘Damn. O.K., cool.’ ”

The following summer Mack cracked open the latest in a favorite video game series—EA Sports’s NCAA Football 11—and discovered his overall rating was a paltry 46 out of 99, matching his jersey number. He kept that number throughout his college career as a reminder of those who had doubted his ability.

Mack was growing into a rush linebacker and taking an interest in breaking down tendencies of offensive tackles he would face in coming weeks. Date night was a visit to the weight room. “I would pop in the office on a Sunday to pick up something, and Mack would be in the gym,” says Oliver. “I saw him in there with a lady friend one time, just doing sit‑ups, push‑ups, working with a medicine ball.”

During the off‑season Mack and his roommate Branden Oliver worked out feverishly and talked about making it to the NFL. Their schedules left little time for summer jobs, and they only received per diems during the school year, so they came to rely on a friend, wide receiver Fred Lee, who was a late-night manager at Taco Bell.

“Fred got to manager status, so he would bring home leftover Taco Bell,” says Oliver, now a running back with the Chargers. “Summer was the hardest time for us. If there was an event going on and food was there, we were there. Sometimes we were just having MET‑Rx shakes for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

As a senior, in the season opener against Ohio State, Mack returned an interception for a touchdown and had 2.5 sacks in a 40–20 loss. Scouts and GMs took notice, and Khalil Mack became a big name in NFL scouting circles. “Here’s the thing about going to a small school versus going to a big school,” Mack says. “There are still opportunities, and you’ve got to make the most of them. Whether it was against Ohio State or Miami [Ohio], I was going to make the most of that opportunity.”

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Steve Jacobson

For the Texans, Clowney and Mack had something—someone—in common: Ed Lambert, a 15-year scouting veteran, is pals with both Ward, the former South Carolina defensive coordinator, and Jappy Oliver, the former Buffalo defensive line coach. Lambert and Oliver coached together at Vanderbilt in the early 1990s before Lambert became a scout.

Oliver told Lambert about the can’t-miss kid who worked out religiously, didn’t speak much and only played one year of prep football before coming to the MAC. “Ed and I went round and round about it,” Oliver says. “I told him, You’re making a mistake, Mack’s work ethic is second to none.”

Says Lambert, “Being a coach for a while, I know exactly where Clowney’s coming from. To me as a coach, if I draft this player [Clowney], he’s gonna bring his ass to meetings, workouts, all that. It’s a matter of getting him with the right position coach and the right regimen.”

At the South Carolina pro day, new Texans coach Bill O’Brien spent the day trying to get a read on Clowney. The workout mattered little; Clowney had already performed at the combine and, at 266 pounds, run a 4.53 40-yard dash. O’Brien wanted to know who Clowney was when the cameras weren’t rolling. Former South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw says O’Brien approached him and asked what kind of teammate Clowney had been. “I told him the truth,” Shaw says. “He’s a freak athlete, and when he wanted to in college, he dominated the game. His work ethic was there. It was just about getting him in the building.”

O’Brien says he doesn’t remember the conversation with Shaw, but he says he does remember the knocks on Clowney that emerged that spring. There were his declining stats, and he had become known as a guy who would pick his spots when he would practice and play hard. “Teams were running the ball away from him, or he was getting double‑teamed or triple‑teamed in pass protection,” O’Brien says. “Just like any player, could he have played better at certain moments? Sure.”

Many evaluators with a top pick ask themselves one question: Given the right circumstances, if paired with the right coaches and the appropriate scheme, what might this player become? Physical tools play heavily into that analysis. A top five pick, in theory, ought to possess rare physical traits that would justify resources spent in acquisition and cultivation.

“What God gave him, it’s rare. We call him a once-in-a-generation kind of athlete,” says Texans GM Rick Smith. “We knew, from the standpoint of learning how to be a professional, that he would have to cover some ground. What you expect is that the athleticism is such and the instincts are such that, as he learns how to do that, there’s still production along the way. Injuries have gotten in the way.”

Oakland’s scouting of Mack began with general manager Reggie McKenzie’s twin brother, Raleigh, who covered the Northeast and brought the Buffalo pass rusher to Reggie’s attention after the Ohio State game. The McKenzies watched Mack closely after that game to see if he would play down to the level of competition in the MAC. “That was the key, and he did not,” Reggie says. “And when he had the chance to play a big school, he dominated there too. You gotta look past the level of competition. You can’t beat him up because of that.”

Looking away from the Power 5, Reggie McKenzie found not only Mack but also Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr one round later. “For both of those guys, I felt strongly about their character, both on the field and off,” McKenzie says. “It’s hard to put certain specifics on what you’re looking for other than your ability to foresee what a guy will be. I don’t know if analytics, height, weight, speed can judge that.”

The coach who would eventually become Mack’s defensive coordinator in 2015, Ken Norton Jr., evaluated Mack while a member of the Seahawks’ staff in 2013 and saw his humble beginnings as a positive. “When I was at USC we studied this. We were always trying to recruit five-stars because those are your better players,” says Norton, who coached linebackers at USC under Pete Carroll from 2004 to ’09. “What we found is that your two- and three-star players end up being pros because they’re so upset, so offended, and they’re trying to spend the rest of their career proving they’re five-stars.”

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Ben Margot/AP

If psychologist Abraham Maslow were to apply his hierarchy of needs to the football field, he might say that Mack has vaulted beyond basic and psychological needs and is on the path to self-actualization. His rookie season was so widely overlooked for its low sack total (four) that the Raiders’ media relations staff began emailing reporters weekly updates from Pro Football Focus on Mack’s unheralded exploits. By 2015, there would be no need.

Mack truly arrived when he single-handedly changed the game in a Week 14 visit to Denver by sacking quarterback Brock Osweiler five times. The Raiders won 15–12, and the NFL got a taste of the former psychology major’s brutal philosophy on rushing the passer. “The mind‑set is, You know what I’m going to do, but can you stop it? I’m going to keep doing it over and over and over until it breaks you,” Mack says. “And then I switch it up. If I can hit him in the mouth over and over and over, then I might switch it up and fake him out. Then I can do whatever I want.”

At Buffalo, Mack’s favorite class was Psych 431, an upper-level course for psychology majors that explores how the body responds to psychological processes. Mack homed in on the importance of mental preparation as it pertains to the body’s release of cortisol, an adrenal hormone that can provide energy in moments of stress, but also comes with deleterious effects in large quantities.

“They talked about the value of a challenge versus a threat,” Mack says. “When you go into a test prepared, you feel like it’s a challenge, and you can do it with confidence. When you’re not prepared, you go into the test thinking you’re going to fail, and the stress goes to your stomach, and you actually do fail because of that.”

Clowney’s road to self-actualization in the NFL has been slower. Before he ever stepped onto the field in 2014, he required surgery for a hernia, in June, a month after the draft. He suffered a torn right meniscus in his NFL debut, and complications led to season-ending microfracture surgery three months later. When he came back last season, eight months after the December surgery, he didn’t feel quite right, he later acknowledged. He played in 13 games with nine starts, injuring his right ankle in Week 5, then suffering a back injury in Week 8. Entering ’16, he had 4.5 sacks in 17 career games and, according to Stats Inc., eight hurries.

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Craig Ruttle/AP; Tomasso DeRosa/AP

Through those first two disappointing seasons, Clowney has discovered that he can’t bulldoze blockers the way he did in the SEC. Not only that, but he’s had to learn how to operate in Romeo Crennel’s hybrid 3–4 defense, which requires outside linebackers to drop into coverage. Clowney hadn’t learned that at South Carolina simply because he didn’t have to.

Ditto for weight training, which had been an afterthought in college. “He thought natural ability would get him by in every situation, so he never really bought into the weight room,” says Ward. “He did just enough to get by. And I told him, ‘You’re gonna have to learn to develop your body because at that next level, all those guys are big, strong and fast just like you.’ I think he’s realized that now.”

Lambert, the scout who talked with Ward about Clowney’s prospects, retired after the 2016 draft. He says it’s time for Clowney to “s‑‑‑ or get off the pot.”

For O’Brien, Clowney’s strong preseason performance and steady play in the season-opening win over the Bears (including a sack) are evidence the man now gets it.

“I think he’s definitely a guy who really understands now how important it is to do all those little things,” O’Brien says.

Robert Beck for The MMQB

Most, if not all, teams would have taken Clowney with the first pick in 2014. Injuries have slowed his development, just like injuries slowed Mack’s development in high school. Before the book is closed, Clowney could very well emerge as the league’s next great rush linebacker, and Mack could very well get hurt and miss time like Clowney has.

Yet the way they arrived in the league—in disparate circumstances—remains a valuable case study in draft strategy for NFL teams.

What if, Khalil Mack, you had been more highly touted? If you had gone to Alabama, Miami or Florida, do you think you would’ve gotten here?

“That’s a tough question, man. Honestly, knowing the work ethic that I have and knowing how competitive I am, it’s easy to say, yes. But in those situations you can get comfortable going to those big schools, eating good, getting things that work in your favor.”

And what if, Jadeveon Clowney, you had been a one- or two-star recruit and walked on at some small school?

“I’d still be a bad mother------.”

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