Johnny Manziel, Jadeveon Clowney and AJ McCarron are among the athletes who were recognized this week as college football’s best.
So are Branden Oliver and Khalil Mack.
The University at Buffalo tandem can be described in any number of ways: best friends, physical freaks of nature and very “watchable.”
The pair was named to national award watch lists Tuesday – Oliver to the Maxwell Award (which recognizes the nation’s top college football player) and Mack to the Chuck Bednarik Award (the top defensive player).
They were both named to their respective watch lists in 2012, as well.
“I appreciate the recognition, but honestly, it doesn’t mean too much,” Mack said. “It’s nice that I could reach those goals, but I just want to win. That’s all I’m thinking about.”
Sports Illustrated named Mack – a 6-foot-3, 245-pound linebacker with biceps the size of a small watermelon – an honorable mention All-American after last season. He had 94 tackles, including 21 for loss, eight sacks and four forced fumbles.
Mack is within reach of two NCAA records.
He is 19 tackles for loss shy of the all-time mark (he has averaged 18.7 per year in his career) and is three forced fumbles away from that record (he has averaged 3.7 per year).
Mack found out about his achievement when someone tweeted “Congratulations” to him and he saw the @BednarikAward account had followed him. Oliver, too, learned the news on Twitter.
Mack flirted with the NFL Draft but decided to return for his senior season. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay tweeted June 26 that studying film on Mack was a “pleasant surprise,” and he said Mack has a second-round skill set and “could be a high pick in ’14.”
While winning a conference championship certainly factored into his decision to sport blue and white for one more year, Mack had a greater driving factor in choosing to return: finishing his degree in psychology, “to make my mother proud,” he said.
When it comes to his senior season, all he wants to do is win, no matter what.
“I want to win a MAC Championship before I leave,” Mack said. “That’s been a goal of mine since I first got here with former head coach Turner Gill. We wanted to keep winning MAC Championships, and unfortunately this is my last chance to do that. We’re going to go out with a bang.”
Oliver chatted with The News in the evening – just after completing a four-hour workout.
Oliver is 626 yards from Super Bowl champion and Niagara Falls native James Starks’ career record at UB. Though he had just 298 yards in a tumultuous freshman year, Oliver has averaged 838 yards per season.
Following an injury-plagued junior year that saw him turn into a coach on the sidelines for youngster Devin Campbell, his replacement while he was out with a grade-two left MCL tear, Oliver was shocked to see his name on the Maxwell watch list again.
“I didn’t think I would be on it, just because of the season I had,” Oliver said. “I’m thanking God. He works in mysterious ways.”
While a lot has changed with Oliver over the course of his career – he’s a much better talker and handles interviews with ease now, for instance – one thing has stayed the same: his propensity to deflect attention.
“As a little kid, you always dream about these things,” Oliver said. “It’s a great feeling, but I haven’t won the award. If the Lord is willing and I do win it, it will be a team award, because I can’t do it without my teammates.”
He was quick to praise his dear friend, Mack.
“He’s a great competitor and the best linebacker in the nation, if you ask me,” Oliver said. “I think he’ll win the award, to tell you the truth, hands down. I don’t see another linebacker of his caliber with his speed and ability to get to the ball.”
The Bulls, who finished 4-8 last season – the third under head coach Jeff Quinn, will open their 2013 campaign Aug. 31 at Ohio State, ranked No. 5 in Sporting News’ preseason NCAA rankings.