ALAMEDA – The Raiders stretch in a large rectangle before practice. Khalil Mack was near the back right corner, flanked by Justin Tuck and Aldon Smith.
An opening remained in the formation in Tuck’s honor, after the veteran defensive end was felled in Week 5 by a season-ending injury. On Wednesday afternoon, Mack had space on both sides.
Mack, Smith and Tuck headlined a potentially ferocious Raiders pass rush at season’s start. Fast forward just beyond the halfway point, and that trio’s down to one.
Smith was suspended a calendar year for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy and, while he’s expected to re-sign with the Raiders in time, that doesn’t help Mack now.
Once one part of a dynamic pass rush opponents planned against, Mack is now the lone star up front. That might make life harder on the second-year pro, but it doesn’t heap stress on someone set on helping a defense looking for a jolt.
“It’s not about putting all the weight on one person’s shoulders,” Mack said Wednesday. “It’s about family and a group of teammates playing as a unit.”
He’ll have help, with Mario Edwards Jr. – he’s been solid filling in for Tuck – and a committee helping at Smith’s spot.
While some teammates seemed shocked by Smith’s suspension, Mack knew something was up. The suspension came down quick but the possibility had been around a little while, with it becoming likely before Sunday’s loss to Minnesota.
Mack, Tuck and Smith have become tight over the past few months. Mack had an inkling this day would come
You knew something was going on and eventually would kind of happen,” Mack said.
It doesn’t make the loss any easier.
Unlike Tuck, who is around often while on IR, Smith won’t have the opportunity to keep his team motivated. Smith is banned from team activities and the Raiders’ complex during the suspension. Players can stay in touch during downtime.
“Aldon is a great person and a great teammate and a great friend,” Mack said. “I’m going to keep in contact.”
Smith and Mack have become fast friends, and last year’s first-round pick said Smith has already taught him a lot.
“He’s a great teammate, man, a great person even off the field,” Mack said. “I’ve learned a lot from him, from his mistakes and learned a lot from what he’s going through. Learning different things, from moves to football things just being around him. He’s a great player.”
Mack can be a great player, a game-wrecker while at his best. He found ways to make plays without star power across from him. He’ll have to find a way to make plays and help those around him, and admits that represents a challenge.
“It was a hit. Everybody has a great respect for him as a man,” Mack said. “It’s a hit, and he knows we have to keep the ball rolling and he’ll be disappointed if we stop the grind.”