One look at second-year Buccaneers cornerback Elbert Mack and it’s not hard to understand why he went undrafted in 2008 despite being tied for the nation’s lead for interceptions with eight during his senior season at Troy. Mack stands just 5-foot-10, weighs just 175 pounds, which is eight pounds heavier than he weighed at the NFL Scouting Combine, and has some skinny arms.
Don’t let Mack’s slight frame fool you. The old adage that says, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog” definitely applies here. Mack believes he is one talented beast, and even has the words “Talented Beast” tattooed on his left arm that features a demon-like creature with talons clutching a football.
“Back in basketball we would always call each other beasts,” Mack said. “When I got to college, I took it to the football field and everyone calling themselves a beast, but I kind of felt I was going to be the talented beast. I played three sports in high school so I just kind of took it because I was undersized and overlooked. I just wanted to say it like I was a talented beast. Not only am I a big monster, I’m an athletic monster.”
Mack has certainly proven that during the first week of the Buccaneers’ 2009 training camp. The former undrafted free agent started things off with a bang, recording two interceptions of quarterback Byron Leftwich during the first day of camp.
“I felt like I surprised myself,” Mack said. “When I woke up that morning I didn’t think I was going to get two interceptions, but I came out, played fast and a couple of them fell in my hands and I was fortunate to make the play.”
Mack’s head-turning play didn’t stop there. He picked off quarterback Luke McCown on Monday and his three interceptions through the first week of training camp lead Tampa Bay’s defense. While the team’s starting cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib have had their ups and downs during the first seven days, Mack, who is currently the team’s third corner and a starter in the nickel defense package, has been the most consistent player at his position.
“Any time you walk away from the first day of camp and you've got two interceptions … like I told him, he's got to be [Vinny] Johnson. He's got to be ‘The Microwave,’” Bucs head coach Raheem Morris said. “He's got to go in the game on third downs and stand up. Everybody's looking at him. Here's the sub, throw it at the sub. And it's always going to be that way, whatever team you're on. Ronde Barber's inside, there's your sub, throw at him. And you've got to stand up and make a play. That's usually how it works. Last year it was Aqib [Talib]. It will be no different for Elbert Mack. You're going to be as good as that guy can be. As long as he keeps practicing like he is right now, who knows? Who knows what he can be?"
After seeing action mostly on special teams last year, where he recorded 12 tackles, Mack is anxious to get some meaningful time playing defense in 2009, but he isn’t going to settle for being Tampa Bay’s nickel corner.
“I feel like it’s my job to gain,” Mack said. “I haven’t done anything. I haven’t made my mark on any field, and I’m definitely not comfortable where I’m at so I don’t want to play nickel my whole life. I’m trying to be a starter. I’m just trying to climb the ladder and we’ll see where I go.”
It would be quite an upset at this point if Mack does not lock down the nickel cornerback spot, but beating out Talib, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick from a year ago, and Barber, the franchise’s all-time interception leader, will be quite a battle.
“If I don’t think I can be a starter, no one will,” said Mack, who had nine tackles and one pass break-up on defense in 2008. “That’s Ronde Barber. That’s going to be a hard spot to (get). I’m just trying to gain this nickel spot and make this team, special teams or whatever my contribution is to this team, I’m going to do it and just play the game.”
From the start of camp, Mack has said that he is not letting the accolades he’s received from Morris, Barber and others get to his head.
“Nobody even has to tell me that,” Mack said. “I say, ‘Okay, that was one good day, I still have to have a good month.’
“You just have to remember that things can go wrong for you just as fast. You saw that I had a leaping interception, but you probably didn’t see on the next play that Antonio Bryant beat me on the deep pass. Those are things you have to pay attention to detail and you have to make sure you never slack off because at any second that could be the play that defines your history.”
Part of the reason why Mack has flourished in training camp is that he played a good deal of man coverage in college at Troy, so the transition to defensive coordinator Jim Bates’ style of bump-and-run coverage has been rather smooth.
“Yeah, I’ve been doing it for a couple of months now, I really don’t have a choice,” Mack said. “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do and do what the coaches ask me to do.
“I just play football. They ask me to get in the guy’s face, I’m going to do it. If they ask me to come up and tackle, I’m going to come up and tackle. Yesterday, I had a pretty good day, but I can’t rest on that. I have a long month ahead of me and I’m going to continue making plays and hopefully Ronde was talking about me when it’s going to be obvious [who wins a spot].”
Mack doesn’t have time to rest. His increased presence on defense has been mirrored by his increased presence on special teams this August.
Not only has been covering punts and kicks, he has been used as a return man too, with special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia trying to take advantage of Mack’s shiftiness and 4.4 speed.
“This year, I guess Bisaccia wants to take a look at me returning as well,” Mack said. “Whereever I’m put in, that’s where I’m going to go out and play on Sundays. If something were to happen to Peanut [Clifton Smith], then I’m going to step in and do my best. Speed kills and I guess that’s what Bisaccia is looking at. I haven’t returned many balls for the Bucs so they really don’t have much to go off of except for me being quick. I feel like I would be all right if I were to get into the open field.”
While Mack doesn’t mind moonlighting as a return guy, he would still prefer to do the hitting as opposed to being hit.
“I like covering,” Mack said. “I’m defensive-minded. I’m just as happy when I’m back there blocking for Peanut. It’s a chance to put your face on somebody. That’s what the game is about. It’s about playing football. I’m a lot more comfortable running down covering the kick than I am returning it.”
Mack is proving in training camp that this talented beast can just about do it all.