I left my house on another hot afternoon in San Jose and started my journey to Oakland Raiders training camp. To get to camp, I drove past the brand new Levi Stadium. The Stadium will host the San Francisco 49ers as they attempt to play in their fourth consecutive NFC Championship and win their first Super Bowl in twenty years. I drove past the Oracle Arena, home of the exciting young Golden State Warriors who hope to land Kevin Love and contend for a NBA title. Behind Oracle, the O.Co Coliseum, home of the Raiders and the Oakland Athletics. The sports talk in the town centers around the A's dumping "moneyball" for big money players Samardzija and Lester.
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area has gotten used to winning, and every team has seen a revival, except the Oakland Raiders.
The Coliseum is in the middle of the concrete jungle, the eight-lane 880 Freeway to the West, the Oakland Airport to the South, the BART train to the East, the Bay Bridge in the horizon to the North. As I speed past the home of the Raiders at 70 miles an hour, it feels like the embodiment of a West Coast urban hub.
An hour later, I'm driving 20 miles an hour, through green wineries and quaint stores. Napa, the home of Oakland's training camp, is a complete 180 from the Downtown Oakland home of the Raiders. I drive to the Marriott, there is no signage, if I was followed, it would seem more likely that I was meeting a mistress for a secret tryst, than attending a football practice. I parked and walked around the building, to find a mass of people in Raiders shirts, I was in the right place.
Saturday was a team scrimmage and a shortened practice for Raiders family day. The crowd on hand consisted of family members, invited season ticket holders and media. On the first play of the scrimmage, Mack, dipped under his blocker and got to the Quarterback Matt Schaub. Schaub is allowed to continue the play, and overthrows his receiver out of bounds. Quarterback play is the biggest question mark for the 2014 Raiders, but the crowd is abuzz because their newest "Raider for life" made a big play.
You can't hit the Quarterback, thus you cannot determine how many times Mack would have grabbed hold of the QB, how many balls he would have tipped or how many fumbles he would have forced. However when Mack winds up and turns the corner around the pocket, it is scary. There is no doubt that he is going to be a QB sacking machine in the NFL.
One of the first things I notice is how big Mack looks. Justin Tuck looks bigger. Together they are a wall of human. Charles Woodson still has it, "it" being a radar lock on the ball. When it's in the air, you can't tell if it's '97 Michigan Woodson or '14 Oakland Woodson. Maurice Jones-Drew looked slimmer, faster, yet still able to pack a punch. He will have a great year if healthy. Darren McFadden ran with a chip on his shoulder, seeking out contact. With a good run game, and all the star power on the Raiders defense, they could have a top-5 defense this year and win some games despite the Quarterback.
The buzz in the stands from the first play was present whenever Khalil made a big play. Mack has become the anti-Rolando McClain and the new face of the Raiders' brighter future. Despite being in an area full of sports stars, when Khalil goes out, he is recognized, Raider nation is everywhere. No more hiding under the radar like the days in Buffalo.
As I left camp, the sports radio promo encouraged fans to buy tickets to watch Khalil Mack and his Oakland Raiders. It is your typical first-round pick hype, but in this case it is well-deserved. Mack has the dedication to his team and respect for hard work that ensures he'll do his all to help the Raiders return to glory.
I sat down with Mack after practice, and despite watching him for years, I was blown away by his humility and his love of the game.
Conrad: How has your time in Oakland been?
Khalil Mack: It's a blessing. Great weather. Great teammates
Conrad (via David Brand): Other than the car, (Mack previously revealed he bought himself a Mercedes in an interview here) Coolest purchase you've made so far?
Mack: Got my mom a house in Florida.
Conrad (via David Brand): Besides the speed of the game, what has been the biggest transition?
Mack: Getting back to the fundamentals of the game, making sure technique is sound, using my hands and using technique and playing at a high level. Especially with the talent that's around me, having to play at that level, is what I'm trying to adjust to.
Conrad: Can you speak to the talent, you got so many guys, you got Tuck you got Woodson...
Mack: I don't wanna forget anybody we got so many, we got Tuck, Antonio Smith, got Woodley on the other side, you got just so many guys Pat Sims in the middle, you got Nick Roach, you got Sio Moore, there are just so many guys playing at a high level, and I'm just trying to match their intensity.
Conrad: Does that change you role, back in Buffalo if it's 7-0 in the third quarter everyone's looking to see what Mack's gonna do...does that change your role here since you don't have to be "the man"?
Mack: That's the thing, I'm just looking forward to playing football and doing anything I can to help the team. That's the same thing I did in Buffalo, just playing football and doing anything I can to help the team on and off the field.
Conrad: Are you getting media training here? Every answer you give is pristine
Mack: I appreciate it man, that's kudos to my man Jon Fuller back in Buffalo he's one of the best media guys out.
Conrad: Looks like the Raiders are going to be very aggressive, back in Buffalo we did a lot of 3-man rushes, it hurt my heart every time you dropped back instead of killing the QB, does the Raiders aggressiveness suit your style more or are you looking to do more of everything?
Mack: That's the thing I want: to be an all-around player, I want to be able to play in coverage as well as rush the passer, I don't want to limit myself to doing one thing.
Conrad: You're going up to Minnesota next week, your first game, what would you rather do in that game, get an interception, a big hit on Adrian Peterson, or a sack?
Mack: That's a tough question,...
Conrad: Or D all of the above.
Mack: D all of the above, man I love the game, you can say one is sweeter than the other, but it's not. Whenever you have an opportunity to make a play that's what I most look forward to in a game, changing the game anyway I can.
Although I'm leaving the Bay Area and unfortunately won't have another chance to talk to Khalil during his rookie campaign, you can bet UB Bull Run will keep you up to date on everything Khalil Mack. His Raiders face the Vikings on Friday, August 8 at 8pm.
Special thanks to Levi Damien at Silver and Black Pride - a must follow for Raiders Camp updates - , the Oakland Raiders Media team and big 52 himself, Khalil Mack, for making some time to speak to his old friends at Bull Run.