Khalil Mack's decision to turn his back on the NFL in January 2013 changed his life. It's fitting, then, that the former University at Buffalo linebacker could alter the course of the 2014 draft.
Mack's return for his senior season came eight months before a monster nine-tackle, 2½-sack, interception-return-for-a-touchdown statement in last season's opener at Ohio State that launched Mack as a projected top-five pick.
Sixteen months after Mack eschewed the chance to become a third- or fourth-round choice, the Houston Texans could select him No. 1 overall.
"If he does go No. 1, it would be because he fits what the Texans are trying to do in their 3-4 defense," NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks, a former scout, told USA TODAY Sports. "Mack played in a 3-4 at Buffalo, where they moved him all around. He could blitz off the edge, drop in coverage. He has experience doing a lot of things."
Asked to name the star of his 2013 recruiting class, Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn joked it was his junior standout who seemed already gone.
Mack's mother, Yolanda, ultimately persuaded her son to get his psychology degree, which he is close to attaining. Nonetheless, Quinn's amateur psychology appealed to a dynamic playmaker's unselfish nature.
"Khalil was very close to potentially announcing going into the NFL draft early," Quinn said. "That was certainly not in the best interest of this football team or Khalil. So I booked a flight to Florida. I called Khalil and said, 'I'm in the area recruiting.'"
Then, Quinn helped change Mack's mind and life.
"They said, 'Who are you recruiting? Maybe we know some of the kids,'" Quinn recalled. "I looked right at Khalil, pointed and said, 'I'm recruiting you.'"
Mack was taken aback.
"'Me? Why, Coach? I'm already on the team,'" Quinn recalled Mack saying. "I said, 'Are you?'"
Quinn showed Mack the NFL Draft Advisory Board projection of him as a third- or fourth-rounder, then reeled him back in.
"I said, 'You have a lot of teammates who want you back,'" Quinn said. "When I left that night, I felt really good because I had mom on my side."
Quinn compares Mack's intangibles with those of Texans 2012 NFL defensive player of the year J.J.Watt, whom he recruited to Central Michigan.
Mack earned Mid-American Conference defensive player of the year honors with 100 tackles, 10½ sacks and three interceptions. He ended his career with a Football Bowl Subdivision-record 16 forced fumbles and an FBS record-tying 75 tackles for loss.
Mack is a havoc-wreaking, ball-jarring force. In Ohio State's 40-20 win against the Bulls, the Buckeyes slighted Mack by single-blocking him. Big mistake.
"I feel it was, sort of, a little disrespect from a schematic approach," Mack said. "At the same time I wanted to make them pay for it."
So now that he's arrived, will he have trouble finding motivation?
"There's a lot more I have to prove, especially coming out of the MAC," Mack said. "I feel like I have to go out there and dominate on the next level. And I'm working hard to do that."
TEAM NEEDS: Backer lackers
Houston Texans: Brooks Reed was a disappointment with three sacks in 2013 and might be a better fit playing inside. Khalil Mack is an ideal strong-side fit for defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel's 3-4 scheme and would pose a nightmare pass-rush tandem paired with superstar J.J. Watt.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Coach Gus Bradley, a former defensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks, is looking to emulate the pressure defense of the Super Bowl champions. Bradley lacks an explosive front-seven centerpiece to team with former Seahawks Chris Clemons and Red Bryant.
Atlanta Falcons: Defensive end Osi Umenyiora is 32, and with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan running a multiple scheme, the Falcons covet a disruptive edge-rushing complement to help keep Umenyiora fresh.
Buffalo Bills: Last year's defensive rookie of the year candidate Kiko Alonso was a second-round gem. The Bills need another impact linebacker to bolster a unit that ranked 20th in scoring defense and surrendered too many big plays.
Detroit Lions: A defense that managed 33 sacks lacks dynamic linebackers to generate heat on top-tier NFC North quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler.
CREAM OF THE CROP
Anthony Barr, UCLA
Height: 6-4. Weight: 245.
Scouting report: A former running back, Barr morphed into a highly-productive pass rusher with 23½ sacks and 41½ tackles for loss in two seasons at linebacker. The Lott IMPACT Trophy winner projects best as a 3-4 right outside pass-rushing linebacker.
Insider's take: "Some people question his physicality, that he's not as physical as you might want. ... I do see him having big-time value. There aren't a bunch of edge rushers in this draft." — NFL Network analyst Charles Davis.
Projected round: First.
Ryan Shazier, Ohio State
Height: 6-3. Weight: 230.
Scouting report: Shazier is an ideal, do-everything weak-side linebacker in a Tampa 2 with his rangy ability to turn and run with a tight end or blitz off the edge. He led the Buckeyes with 144 total tackles last season.
Insider's take: "He might be, pound for pound, the most physical player in this draft class. He just explodes through ballcarriers. He epitomizes that Seahawks mentality of putting a ballcarrier on his backside. Shazier is that traditional, 4-3 outside linebacker who just finds the ball." — CBS Sports analyst Rob Rang.
Projected round: First
Kyle Van Noy, BYU
Height: 6-3. Weight: 235.
Scouting report: Van Noy has excellent range, instincts and recognition skills. Though he lacks elite athleticism and core strength, his all-around will likely earn him a second-day selection.
Insider's take: "I think right now Van Noy is in the third-round mix as a versatile linebacker who can help you on special teams and do some things there." — ESPN analyst Mel Kiper.
Projected round: Second
Dee Ford, Auburn
Height: 6-2. Weight: 243.
Scouting report: An explosive playmaker who emerged with 10 ½ sacks last season, Ford flashed impressive ability to drop into coverage at the Senior Bowl. He could fit the San Francisco 49ers, if they look to move on from troubled linebacker Aldon Smith.
Insider's take: "He doesn't have as much length as you like. He might be comparable to Bruce Irvin who Seattle took at 15 a couple of years ago. He has some edge burst and would fit what the Eagles do,'' NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock.
Projected round: Second or third
Marcus Smith, Louisville
Height: 6-3 1/2. Weight: 258.
Scouting report: The American Conference Defensive Player of the year, who finished second in the nation with 15 sacks last season showed excellent fluidity when the Louisville defensive end was asked to drop in coverage at the Senior Bowl. His best fit is as a 4-3 strong side linebacker who can stay on the field in nickel situations.
Insider's take: "Execs LOVE him. Loose edge rusher with a burst to close... Strong hands to set edge vs. run. Intriguing,'' NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter.
Projected round: Third or fourth.