By Ryan Gorcey, Daily Cal Contributing Writer
Reprinted by permission.
Big Mack. Mack Truck. Mack Diesel. Whatever you choose to call Cal junior center Alex Mack, one fundamental truth remains the same: he's big and in the way. It's his job, and he does it arguably better than every other center in the nation.
He is a top candidate for the Rimington Trophy as the country's top center. He was named a midseason first-team All-American by www.SI.com. He is a semifinalist for the Rotary Lombardi Award--named for the late Green Bay Packers coach, who was one of Fordham's "seven blocks of granite" line in his college days.
At 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, Mack certainly looks the part of a monolith. With his frame, it would be easy to think that all he has to do is stand still and take up space to be successful.
"Everyone on this level is big and strong, so you just have to use technique," says Mack. "Being a good lineman is about being a technician."
And Mack is one of the best. But he was not always so attentive to technique. His size allowed him to get by with manhandling opponents in high school.
"I was just bigger and stronger and I could just throw them out of the way," says Mack of opposing defensive players. "Here in college, it's such a technique game, that it doesn't even compare to high school."
But at San Marcos High, Mack laid the groundwork for becoming the technician that he is. Along with being an elite offensive lineman, he logged 93 tackles and eight sacks on defense. His versatility earned him team MVP honors in 2003.
"I was really honored," says Mack. "I thought it was going to go to our quarterback or something. I just wanted the best lineman award."
Along with his success on the gridiron, Mack picked up a California Interscholastic Federation heavyweight wrestling championship, posting a 26-1 record in his senior year.
"Wrestling's been really helpful, just learning where your body weight is, and where the other guy is," says Mack. "It taught me a lot, like how to control a guy, throw him across your body and grab him. Things come natural (from wrestling) that probably aren't considered completely legal (in football)."
Mack's experience on defense and the body awareness he learned on the mats provided the base upon which he has built an impressive reputation. It is in that continuous quest to improve his technique that Mack separates himself from the stereotypical big, fat and immobile lineman.
"Being a center, there's a lot of thinking that's involved," says Mack. "Before the play, you get the play, you go to the line, you have to remember what the snap count is, you have to call out the front and what everyone's assignment is, tell both the guards what they have to do and then I have to focus on what I have to do."
But such attention to detail goes far beyond game day. Mack is usually the last lineman off the field after practice, always getting in a little extra footwork and hand work while other players grab some Gatorade. For such a large individual, Mack is surprisingly quick. He can run the 40-yard dash in 5.0 seconds, a feat only four lineman at the last NFL Combine surpassed.
That quickness and Mack's brute strength have terrorized opposing defensive lines. Last season, Mack led the team in pancakes--a type of block, not the food--with 25.5, and had a team-high 57.5 knockdowns. This season, he and the rest of the line have allowed only eight sacks, lowest in the conference. The Bears are averaging 167.8 yards per game on the ground this year behind that line. Part of that success stems from Mack's experience with a primarily ground-based offense in high school. Since coming to Cal, however, Mack has had to learn to protect pocket passers like Nate Longshore.
"In high school, I didn't know what a pass set was," says Mack. "Here, half the day we work on pass blocking, pass sets, pass technique. It's so technical. It's amazing how hard it is."
But those extra hours spent after practice have helped Mack make the job look easy. By paying such attention to detail and technique, speed and precision, Mack has basically succeeded in teaching an 18-wheeler to do ballet. And that Mack Diesel may be barrelling toward the NFL as soon as next season.
But despite the hype surrounding the big man's draft stock, Mack firmly asserts that he will wait to make his decision until after the season.
"It doesn't matter until the season's over," says Mack. "I'm just going to focus on one game at a time and be the best player that I can be."
The best player Mack can be is probably one of the best players in the country that no one's heard of. But then again, he did win an MVP award over his quarterback and running back. This big diesel could be making his fair share of noise sooner than we think.