As a boy, Bucs cornerback Elbert Mack watched many of his favorite NFL players wear protective visors and wanted one of his own. But he refused to wait for his parents to purchase one. Mack went the unconventional route. He cut out a section of a clear plastic 2-liter pop bottle and attached it to his youth league helmet using twist ties. "Those were the most fun days I had," Mack said. "I even played with it in the games, too." His ingenuity is no surprise for a young man who years later still is proving his ability to make something out of nothing.
Division I football seemed a long shot when Mack enrolled in junior college out of high school in Wichita, Kan. Making an NFL roster looked improbable when he went undrafted out of Troy in 2008. And securing a long-term role on an NFL defense appeared implausible even after the wiry, baby-faced prospect surprisingly made the Bucs' final roster last fall.
But Mack, 23, has established that he's the sort of player the new regime in Tampa Bay is looking for to stock its roster.
"That's the kind of guy we talk about when we talk about the 53rd man on the team," coach Raheem Morris said. "They fight their way to the top. He's not the 53rd man anymore, and he's making sure of it."
During a great first week of training camp, Mack was one of the most intriguing players on the field. He made numerous interceptions in full-squad drills and got his hands on many other passes. He also was willing to mix it up physically in a new defensive scheme that often calls for cornerbacks to engage receivers at the line of scrimmage.
"We're definitely a little bit more in-your-face defense," he said.
But even at 5 feet 10 and a scrawny 175 pounds, Mack is holding up just fine.
"I like people to think they're going to push me over," he said. "Then, when they see the fight in me, it changes things. I'm not going to say that I'm going to always win, but I'm definitely going to fight."
In Mack's likely role as the nickel back, Morris said Mack can expect to be viewed as a weakness. When the defense goes to a three-cornerback lineup, the third one to enter the game is the most likely to be targeted. Who better to fill that role than perhaps the team's most defiant player?
"He's got to go in the game on third downs and stand up," Morris said. "Everybody's looking at him. 'There's the sub. Throw it at the sub. … Ronde Barber's (in the slot). There's your sub. Throw at him.' And you've got to stand up and make a play."
Mack has been in this position before. At Troy in Alabama, balls flew in his direction as opponents tried to avoid testing his feared teammate Leodis McKelvin, the Bills' 2008 first-round draft pick. And Mack snatched eight interceptions to lead the nation his senior year.
The next phase of Mack's development is to thrive in his expanded role. He also will look to establish himself as a possible long-term solution when Barber, 34, departs.
"I'm not trying to replace Ronde," Mack said of his fellow 5-foot-10 cornerback. "Ronde will never be replaced. But you can't play the game forever."
If Mack can follow in Barber's large footprints, he will continue a trend he started long ago.
"Everywhere I go, it seems like I go through the back but leave out the front," Mack said. "This is the last step, so hopefully I can leave that legacy here."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]mes.com