McKinney's accomplishments as a redshirt rookie this fall earned him Freshman All-America status by FoxSportsNext, as well as Freshman All-SEC by vote of the league's coaches. He is the first Bulldog to make the conference all-frosh squad since 2006, and maybe—records haven't been thoroughly combed to be sure—the first All-American rookie at State since Billy Jackson turned the trick in 1980.
By any measure McKinney has joined a quite exclusive club. "It's a blessing to be an All-American," he said. "It's something that when you're a kid you grow up dreaming about but not really thinking it's possible." Well obviously it was not only possible but in the case this kid—if someone standing 6-5 and packing around 235 pounds of muscle can be called such—it was fully feasible.
In the regular season he recorded 97 total tackles, which was not just the most of any SEC freshman this year; it was fifth-best from among all conference defenders regardless of class. For comparison the next-best rookie came in at #26. Nationally, McKinney checked in as the third-leading freshman tackler in the NCAA statistics, and #83 overall.
A satisfying season, then? Wellll… "I'm never satisfied about what I've accomplished," McKinney said. "Because I always think I can do better. In my perspective I had an OK season."
If 2012 was just ‘OK' the Bulldog mind boggles at what may be in store as McKinney matures. Expectations were high enough for the Tunica native, the first Rosa Fort High graduate to sign a SEC scholarship in a decade. And while he was listed as a linebacker upon signing with Dan Mullen's program in 2011 there were questions—not concerns--about just where McKinney would best fit. At that impressive stature some saw a defensive end, and in fact as this past season played out there were times McKinney crept up to the line of scrimmage a la K.J. Wright or the like.
Realistically it didn't matter where he began most plays because often as not he ended them around the football. By the fourth game McKinney had moved into the starting lineup as well, when Mississippi State got away from the small-linebacker approached used initially and went with a larger threesome of Cameron Lawrence, Deontae Skinner, and McKinney; along at times with Ferlando Bohanna depending on starting schematic.
"I progressed kind of fast," he agreed. "I tried to just make sure I got in the book and the film room to understand what I was doing." Obviously McKinney is a quick learner. Last spring he showed signs of catching up already to the year-older Bohanna, and by September he'd surpassed his competitor for one of the regular linebacker slots. Soon after being promoted to starter McKinney posted his best back-to-back games statistically, with a dozen tackles at Kentucky followed by 14 stops against Tennessee. He matched that season-best total in the Texas A&M game and posted four games with double-digit stops.
So he is already a finished product, right? Not at all. Give the ‘kid' credit for already knowing enough football to know what he doesn't know, something few frosh understand.
"I'm still working on staying low and getting more physical, and understanding my assignments," McKinney gave as his spring and summer to-do list. Oh, and one other thing: for all the fine work stuffing ball-haulers there were the painful replays of catches made by McKinney's man. Asking a young ‘backer to do everything well is a lot of course, but then that's why he is on the field. So McKinney has circled coverage as an off-season priority.
"That's a big role I need to work on, with staying low and getting my footwork better. I got so much better," he said. Still, "It's important during bowl practices." Because while Northwestern isn't a air-oriented offense the Wildcats do pick their spots for passes…usually when the linebackers and safeties have crowded the line looking for another rushing play. The only burn Bulldogs defenders want from the Gator Bowl is a little Florida sunburn on New Years Day.
There is another duty being added to McKinney's playing-plate this week as bowl camp accelerates. Remember Mullen's comment about resting the seniors and some other starters and focusing on younger players and backups? McKinney falls into an interesting in-between area here. He's a starter to be sure, yet also still one of those young Bulldogs with much room left for maturing. So he expects to get a fair share of early-camp snaps.
Yet as a veteran now he also is expected to become, yes, a leader. Especially because come spring ball old reliable #10, the only Dog with more tackles than McKinney, will have graduated. McKinney can't fully express his debt to Lawrence, for all the film-room help in studying offenses and practice-day tips on how to understand the pre-snap keys.
Parting, as the Bard babbled, is indeed sweet sorrow after the only season McKinney will have enjoyed playing alongside Lawrence. "That's the part that is going to be hardest for me, because of the bound between Cam, myself and Skinner is so tight. If I didn't know what I was doing they would be on me, making sure I learned." Now, guess who has to step up and into the role of setting a pace? The kid of this club, though fortunately Skinner himself is a rising senior.
I'm going to have to spend the bowl practices learning how to lead," McKinney said. "It's going to be hard but it's going to have to be something I have to get used to. I'm just going to be talking more and leading all the players like Richie (Brown) and Beniquez (Brown) to get everybody involved. I'm going to be on them like Coach Collins and Cam were on me, I'm going to be their friend and big brother off the field but on the field I'll be on them."
When he is on the practice field this week, that is. One need not have been a Freshman All-American to enjoy taking a few snaps off so the youngest pups can play…but it helps. Because a year ago it was McKinney battling daily in bowl camp with hopes of earning a regular job in the coming season. He can even grin about what the Browns and classmates will be feeling by the time Sunday's scrimmage arrives.
"I was so tired after practices, they're going to be so tired after all the work they're going to do!"