He showed off his interception prowess in college, but CB Elbert Mack surprised some with his hard-hitting ways in his first NFL preseason
It took four extra months for Elbert Mack's phone to ring, but it was well worth the wait.
As Mack sat around all day this past Saturday, doing nothing but waiting for a call, the situation seemed intensely familiar to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie cornerback. In late April, Mack spent a weekend doing the same thing, sitting by the phone during the two days of the 2008 NFL Draft, waiting for some word on his professional future.
The phone didn't ring that weekend, at least not until teams began lining up the undrafted free agents they hoped to sign. Mack, the NCAA's leading interceptor in 2008 and bookend corner to first-round pick Leodis McKelvin, was passed over for seven rounds and 252 picks.
Mack wasn't overly surprised by the draft-weekend silence, and he wasn't deterred from his NFL dream. He signed with the Buccaneers after the draft and headed to Tampa confident he could prove his worth.
Slight (5-10, 168) but speedy, Mack appeared to be a good fit in the Bucs' scheme from Day One. When the preseason games started in August, Tampa Bay fans saw the same things the coaches had witnessed on the practice field: grasp of the system, quickness, playmaking ability and, perhaps most surprisingly, a nose for the hard hit. Mack finished the preseason with 11 tackles, an interception and two passes defensed.
And then he sat down by the phone again and waited. It was quiet again, but this time it was a welcome silence. The Buccaneers had to send their 22 final cuts to the NFL by 6:00 p.m. ET on Saturday, so any call before that time would probably have carried unwelcome news.
Mack's phone finally rang at 6:00 p.m., and it was not 'The Turk' but his position coach, Raheem Morris. Unlike many drafted players around the NFL, Mack had made a 53-man roster in his first try.
"That was probably one of the happiest moments in my life," said the Wichita, Kansas native. "That was my draft day to me. That sends you back to April. That was my phone call for me. A lot of people got into camp that got drafted and a lot of people didn't make it out of camp. I look at it like that."
Mack's Troy buddy, McKelvin, made the team in Buffalo, too, though that was hardly a surprise for the 11th-overall selection. The two have traded calls and text messages throughout the preseason, often regarding good news. Mack congratulated McKelvin when the Bills rookie returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Pittsburgh in Week Two; McKelvin returned the favor with a 'Nice pick,' three days later when the Bucs rookie intercepted New England's Matt Cassel.
Mack doesn't begrudge McKelvin his lofty draft spot or near shoo-in status for the Bills roster. Mack may have had a more nervous Saturday, but he might not have even attracted NFL interest in the first place if it wasn't for his star teammate.
"He brought a lot of publicity to the school," said Mack of McKelvin. "I think we had about seven or eight guys go to rookie mini-camp. That shows you a lot. A lot of people came in to watch the Pro Day and a lot of players got looked at. A lot of us got a chance to put our best foot forward, and there are probably three or four of us on rosters right now."
Of course, Mack drew some of that attention on his own thanks to an eight-interception campaign. Still, Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden agrees that the soon-to-be-Buffalo-Bill was the hook that dragged a lot of scouts into watching Troy videotape.
"[Mack] had an impressive career at Troy State," said Gruden. "We watched Leodis McKelvin, a great corner selected by Buffalo, and the more you watch Troy State the more you say, 'Who's this other guy?' He had a really good camp and he made the team for good reason."
On Monday, finishing up his second practice as an official regular-season Tampa Bay Buccaneer, Mack couldn't say exactly what that reason was. He's not sure what the coaching staff has appreciated most about his performance so far, though he believes the key is to work hard and listen harder while on the practice field.
Mack does believe he knows the secret to remaining successful in the Bucs' proven defensive scheme.
"It's playing fast and understanding what the offense is trying to give us," said Mack. "Working within the defensive scheme, you get a lot of chances to make plays, like Ronde Barber's been showing you guys for 12 years now. When you're in the right spot at the right time, you make a play."
Turns out Tampa is the right spot at the right time for Mack, who wasn't sure what would happen back in April when his phone didn't ring. Now that he got the call, he couldn't be happier with the way things worked out.
"I'm amped up," said Mack. "It's just like playing your first football game ever. It takes you back to Little League days, when I first put on a helmet. It's one of those types of feelings. I started out little and now I'm playing on the biggest stage in the world."