By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Travis Mack sometimes looks around the field and can't believe where he is. It's not just that he's a member of Georgetown's football team or even that he's a starter, but that he's the one in charge of the defense on the field.
Few could have expected that from someone who spent most of his high school career on the junior varsity team, so it's no big surprise that the junior free safety still is finding his way as the defense's decision-maker, a job he took on last season.
"I never had that opportunity to be that guy," Mack said. "Basically, it was all new to me sophomore year. I didn't know what to expect, but I've kind of grown more confident now in what I'm doing."
Mack is a classic late bloomer. When he was young, his father coached him in Pop Warner football, and he wouldn't even give Mack the football. One day, Mack asked his dad why he wasn't getting the ball. His father told him it was because he wasn't running hard.
"Then the next play, he gave me the ball and I ran for a touchdown," Mack said with a big grin.
Mack, who moved with his family from Connecticut to the Philadelphia suburbs before his senior year, played in just two varsity games at West Chester East High School. Not surprisingly, given his lack of playing time and his size, colleges weren't recruiting him to play football.
Nonetheless, his high school coach encouraged him to spend a postgraduate year at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa. Before he enrolled, Mack came up with a workout plan to make himself stronger. Between his weightlifting and a growth spurt, as well as the 63 tackles and five interceptions he had at Hill School, he attracted the attention of the Georgetown coaches.
"He's a pretty gifted athlete, as well," defensive coordinator Rob Sgarlata said. "It doesn't hurt to have God-given talent. He has that."
Mack arrived on campus standing 6 feet and weighing 190 pounds, leaving the coaches undecided on where to play him. To help them decide, Mack took part in the Sunday night football games for freshmen that Coach Kevin Kelly instituted in his first year. It gave the freshmen who weren't playing on Saturdays a chance to show the coaches what they could do.
It didn't take long for them to recognize that Mack belonged on the field on Saturdays. As a freshman, he started the last five games for the Hoyas at strong safety, recording at least four tackles in each of his last six games. The following season, he was moved to free safety. Georgetown runs its defense through that position, which means Mack is responsible for calling the coverages and making adjustments.
"It's a lot of pressure. They expect you to do a lot," he said. "Sgarlata's always on my back: 'Run the defense, run the defense.' Last year, I wasn't used to everyone yelling at me because I never really was a starter pretty much."
Mack learned how to read the quarterback and the offensive line to better anticipate whether the next play would be a pass or a run. He also became better at not getting fooled by play-action and more adept at being a step ahead of what was coming next.
"You have to be pretty good with your eyes," Mack said.
Mack, who finished fourth on the team with 60 tackles last season, excelled at the playmaking aspects of his position but needed to work on his communication skills.
"If you watch practice, you see me kind of standing right next to him whispering in his ear," Sgarlata said. "He's proven to the kids that he has the physical ability to play. He's been a really good player for us. Now it's kind of time for him to start taking a lead. . . . He's getting better at it. I don't think it's something that comes to him naturally."
Mack played every sport he could growing up -- wrestling, baseball and basketball -- but stuck with football even though he didn't play much.
"Honestly, I wasn't really frustrated because I was practicing," he said. "I love being there" on the football field.