Leon Mackey understands his progress this year might be easier for coaches to see on videotape than for someone else to read off a stats sheet. After all, sacks and tackles seldom pile up as easily for a defensive tackle as a defensive end.
Texas Tech’s lanky senior from Wilmington, Del., spent most of his college career at end, but he’s been adjusting since spring to defensive tackle.
“I’m just trying to learn it day by day as I go along,” Mackey said this week. “That’s been the main progress. I’m just worrying about the process instead of the results. I’m trying to work every day — on my pad level, hands, feet, effort, everything I need to keep getting better on each day. It’s been fun, though.”
Mackey, who backs up Kerry Hyder at left defensive tackle, played his first game at his new position last week as Tech beat Northwestern State 44-6.
“He’s gotten better,” Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said Tuesday. “He played a little bit high, didn’t run to the ball as good as he’s going to need to, but he’s got a strong, strong upper body. He’s got to force himself to play lower, with low leverage, because he is so tall. Normally, you don’t have a (tall) guy like that inside.
“He’ll be fine. He’ll get better every week. He likes to work at it.”
New defensive coordinator Art Kaufman has mentioned Quinton Coples, one of the players he coached at North Carolina, as a player with a similar body type who had success playing inside. The 6-foot-6, 284-pound Coples played mostly defensive tackle two years ago, making 151/2 tackles for loss, and end last year. He was a first-round draft pick by the New York Jets in April.
The 6-foot-5 Mackey began last season around 255 pounds. He says he’s more concerned with how his strength measures up than what a scale says, but he’s tried to put on some pounds to help tangle with guards and centers. After getting up to as much as 272, he’s settled back to 265.
“Right now, I’m not where I want to be,” he said. “At the same time, just because I don’t weigh enough, that doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and lay down because I’m not big enough. I’m going to play when I get in there. That’s the goal, to perform.”
Mackey isn’t totally giving up defensive end either. In certain down-and-distance situations Saturday, the Red Raiders used a three-man front that involved all the tackles. Delvon Simmons plugged the middle, flanked by Mackey on one end and Hyder on the other.
“I feel privileged enough they put me out on the edge,” Mackey said. “That’s something I want to keep working on, getting better. I’m glad I have some film at defensive end also, playing inside too, just to kind of market myself. My goal is to get better every day, wherever they line me up.”
To Mackey, it’s less important where he plays than that he plays, especially after last season, his first at Tech after he transferred in from a junior college in Mississippi. As an opening night starter in 2011, Mackey made four tackles but suffered a punctured right lung that effectively ruined his season.
Mackey said the injury wasn’t particularly painful — he kept playing that night, noticing that he couldn’t get his breath and his vision became fuzzy. Ultimately, Mackey said, doctors determined his right lung capacity was reduced to 15 percent, and only time could heal it.
“With the injury, it set me back more than I expected,” he said. “I couldn’t really lift any weights. My rehab was just chillin’, to be honest with you.”
Mackey played in eight games, but didn’t make any sacks and it was a struggle to get back to full health before the season ended.
“I don’t even know if I ever felt like that, to be honest with you, at all,” Mackey said. “It’s adversity, but it’s the same adversity that anybody else can go through. So I didn’t look at it as, ‘Oh, pity me.’ I’ve just got to keep moving and be optimistic.”
To comment on this story: