Spring break was blooming in Khalil Mack’s home state of Florida, where hundreds of NFL hopefuls gather every year in the months leading up to the draft.
Yet here he was chilling up in Buffalo — enduring a blizzard in March while a fellow University at Buffalo football alumnus tried to chisel even more athletic horsepower out of this 6-foot-3, 250-pound Mack truck in shoulder pads.
In five years time, Mack went from a lightly-recruited linebacker to the most devastating defender in UB history, and now one of the elite prospects in the 2014 NFL draft.
While Mack worked up a sweat in a building that is literally cold as ice, nearby Northtown Center, where John Opfer operates Proformance Sports Training on the second floor, the original draft guru, Mel Kiper Jr., moved Mack to the very top of his latest mock draft.
Mack barely raised in eyebrow at the mock.
“I try to keep that on the back burner,” Mack says at the very moment he becomes the hottest name in the draft.
“I’m still just working hard. That’s what it’s about with me. I don’t focus on the attention toward me.”
In the weeks leading up to February’s NFL scouting combine, Mack trained with noted speed coach Tom Shaw at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando.
When it came time for Mack to run the 40-yard dash in Indianapolis, he was timed at 4.68 seconds, slower than Mack and most everyone else expected.
That night, Mack called Opfer, with whom he had trained periodically during the UB offseasons.
“I called John right away because I knew he was exactly what I needed,” Mack says.
A performance coach for the Cleveland Indians, Buffalo Bills, and the University of Tennessee before opening Proformance in 2002, Opfer has helped former UB stars Steven Means, Josh Thomas, Naaman Roosevelt, Dominic Cook and Branden Oliver, among others, prepare for the pros.
Opfer apprenticed under noted track and field coach Vince Anderson when he was at Tennessee and has since obtained five levels of certification from USA Track and Field.
Working with athletes across a wide range of sports and skill levels over the years, Opfer has honed a rare ability to spot hidden weaknesses in the most powerfully-built bodies.
“John is so effective in so many ways,” Mack says, “building up your body to what it’s supposed to be and really assessing you, telling you what you need to do, specifically, for your body.”
From previous sessions, Opfer noticed Mack was generating most of his power from his lower back and was relatively weak in his abdominals.
“You look at him with his shirt off and he’s so ripped, you’d laugh if I said he was weak in his abdominals,” Opfer says. “But when you watch him move, you quickly realize that he can be even more powerful.”
One wonders how quickly the NFL scouts noticed this when watching Mack’s mesmerizing game tape.
In four days’ time, Opfer had Mack running in the 4.4s in his turfed corridor above the ice rinks, and at UB’s pro day at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Mack was clocked between 4.47 and 4.53 seconds, exceptional for a player his size.
Soon after, the buzz about Mack being the best player in the draft began in earnest.
Mack spent the next two months in Buffalo, working out daily with Opfer.
“Having him in the offseason now and having that time together, we are starting to develop him as a complete athlete,” Opfer says.
Imagine that. All those highlight plays Mack made at UB, and he wasn’t even a complete athlete yet.
“We’ve got to look at his ankle support, his knee structure, his pelvic girdle, his spine, things like that,” Opfer says. “Just like we fixed him pushing from his stomach instead of his back, we were able to do the same things with other movements.”