It was just another stop on just another recruiting sweep in talent-rich Florida. Robert Wimberly, assistant coach at Liberty University, visited Westwood High in Fort Pierce when the head coach there, Waides Ashmon, told him about a player who was injured during his junior year but playing again as a senior.
"I think he'll be a diamond in the rough," the coach said.
Was he ever.
Khalil Mack's recruitment, by a lone coach from an FCS school based in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, is hard to fathom in an era when Florida high school players are often well-known by colleges by the time they're old enough to get their drivers' permits. The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Mack is now a potential top-five pick in May's NFL draft – at the scouting combine, he posted a 40-inch vertical and a 4.65 40-yard dash time – and if it wasn't for Wimberly, the linebacker might not have been recruited to a Division I school at all.
"USF and UCF were looking," Wimberly said Wednesday by phone, "but there were no other offers. He would have been a young man who got overlooked."
There were reasons: Mack was a prep basketball player who as a junior suffered a patella tendon injury that threatened his high school athletic career. He returned to health stronger than before, but he wasn't even thinking about football until Ashmon phoned Mack's dad early in the teenager's senior year and promised him that if he allowed his son to pick up a new sport, he'd go to college for free.
Wimberly's visit helped fulfill that promise. By the time Mack got comfortable on the field, most schools already had a full list of recruits at linebacker. The Liberty coach walked into a situation every assistant dreams of: a potential star nobody knew about.
"He could go one of two ways," Wimberly said. "He could be raw and marginal, or this kid has a chance to be a specimen."
His gut told him it was the latter. That, of course, led to some nerves. When he saw Mack, who was then a 6-1, 215-pound workout demon, he could hardly believe there was no other school involved.
"Man," he recalled thinking, "it's just gonna be a matter of time before schools jump in on him."
Wimberly became more impressed as he began to learn more about Mack. The future linebacker loved the physical nature of both basketball and football, recoiling at being called "soft" earlier in his life and striving to remove that label permanently. He also had a diligence and a reliability that surfaced immediately.
"He was very consistent to stay in contact with," Wimberly said. "He said he'd call you Sunday and he would. You were able to pick up on that work ethic. He carried that even in high school."
All of that made Wimberly more nervous. Was Mack really going to Liberty?
The answer was no, and not because of Mack. It was because of Wimberly.
The assistant got a job at the University of Buffalo under head coach Turner Gill, and he immediately told his new boss about the kid from Fort Pierce. Then he stood out of the way, trying not to meddle or force Mack's hand.
Mack visited Buffalo, on a day when the campus was covered with snow, and he decided to follow Wimberly there. The MAC school was his only offer.
The entire Bulls staff learned quickly what Wimberly knew.
"He could run," he said. "He can [come around the] bend and pass rush, turn the corner. Great hips – so fluid in his hips. And he's got long arms. He was so explosive getting from point A to point B, even as a freshman."
Then the coaching staff saw him in the film room, learning the game he hadn't played as long as his new teammates. Mack wasn't just raw talent who needed years to develop. Wimberly thought he could rapidly become the best player in school history.
Four years later, he's pretty close. "He made me a great coach," head coach Jeff Quinn said with a laugh.
Quinn took over for Gill when Mack was a true freshman. Mack held the school record for forced fumbles and tackles for loss even before his senior season. His first game last year was against Ohio State, and he had an interception returned for a touchdown, nine tackles and 2.5 sacks. Urban Meyer said Mack could play at any school in America, and now that looks like an understatement. "He wasn't just someone who was going to put his hand in the dirt and rush," Quinn said. "They never knew what he was going to do."
Buffalo had record attendance in 2013, and "Macktion" was part of the reason.
Gill had moved on to Kansas and then to Liberty, and Wimberly returned to join him there in 2012. Wimberly doesn't take credit for being the guy who found Mack, but he admits scouts sometimes come up to him and want to shake his hand. He's still in touch with the Fort Pierce phenom, but now he's spending his time trying to find and coach the next Khalil Mack. If he does come across anyone who reminds him of Mack, he's not going to doubt his fortune or his instincts.
"There's nothing like a gut feeling," he said.