Three weeks and nine practices into 2012 spring camp, McKinney is taking first turn with the first team as mike linebacker. He and sophomore Ferlando Bohanna are waging a fierce and by McKinney's account also fun fight for number-one status, and never mind who lines up for the initial snaps in drills or scrimmages.
"We're just out there competing and having fun, what every football player does," said McKinney. "We're trying to compete, and we're telling each other we're doing good. So we aren't putting each other down or whatever. It's just he's doing good and I'm doing good, and we just fight!"
A contest that is bound to accelerate the improvement of both Bulldog ‘backers, not to mention the entire unit. Coach Geoff Collins is having an interesting second spring at Mississippi State, shuffling his Dog-deck for a lineup or more likely lineups that best complement the general scheme. He does have the luxury of one absolute known quantity in OLB Cameron Lawrence coming off his 124-tackle junior season. And based on a strong last month of 2011, junior Deonte Skinner is staking a claim to the other outside job…though not without some darned strong competition of his own from Matthew Wells, a lighter and more coverage-tested alternative.
It's between those two spots though that the focus naturally turns, and not just because middle, or inside, or whatever one wants to label it, is the popular position. Somebody is about to get all those snaps and, hopefully, tackles piled up by Brandon Wilson last fall. Here are McKinney and Bohanna each staking a claim and taking their shots.
But not, the younger man says, at each other.
"It's going pretty well," McKinney said. "When Bo is on the sideline he's telling me the keys, telling me what to do. And when I'm there I'm telling him what to do." Now that is one fine way for a couple of still-developing players to speed up the mutual progress.
"It's going pretty well. And all the older players are pushing me to keep going." Correct. Collins has the title and the office but Lawrence and Skinner might as well be called assistants to the assistant this spring season.
"Oh, they're helping me out a lot," McKinney said. "I mean, when I'm down on the sideline about whatever I missed, they're telling me what I need to do, trying to build my confidence up so I can keep playing at a high level."
Now the encouraging word is those older linebackers haven't had to do as much correcting as would be usual for a first-year kid like McKinney. "No, I haven't messed up that much!" Nor has his confidence needed a lot of rebuilding. McKinney is not cocky, understand. And he admits freely that his first exposure to Mississippi State's defensive was…interesting.
Humbling, too. "I don't think I was ready to play at all. I've made a big step from last year to now. Now I can handle it, I can go out there and be ready." McKinney means it, too. He is convinced now that come September he can take his stance and execute as assigned as a redshirt freshman in the SEC.
"I mean, I kind of caught on quickly. Last year I had trouble learning all my plays and now I'm understanding better. So I'm catching on quick. Like, I know what should do, it's just the little ‘twitches' that I've got to do better."
Twitches, or maybe switches. It's no secret that Coach Collins requires all active linebackers, whether inside or outside or either side, understand the entire unit's concepts and assignments. Not just have an idea; be able to do it without any warning.
"He wants us to know everything. So, if anybody goes down, you've got to fill in. Because maybe young players won't know it, so we may have to take their spot or whatever."
Notice the rather ironic ‘young players' comment coming from somebody who a dozen months ago was still in senior classes at Rosa Fort High. Fascinating, how jumping to the head of the linebacker line lends a freshman the air of an old Dog when discussing defense. Then again no linebacker and especially inside linebacker ever scored points, much less tackles, by being low-key.
And McKinney honestly admits, he's come a long way in a short time. "It's too fast! When I close my eyes and think about high school, it has happened so fast. It's like yesterday I was in high school."
The twist to his prep career is McKinney made a name playing both sides of the ball, and piling up over 2,000 yards as the Rosa Fort quarterback. "It was my primary position," he said, still proud. McKinney was recruited specifically for linebacker of course but the old experience has left him with a taste for being in charge.
Which, he agreed, suits him that much more for inside linebacker. "Yeah, that's why I like it! I'm back here calling the shots. And I got to make a lot of plays at quarterback, now I get to make a lot of plays inside! It helps me, because I'm feeling like ‘what would I do if I was back there?' I can read and whatever." By the way, given how short-handed Mississippi State is for spring quarterbacks, has he ever been tempted to, you know, offer his services on that side?
"Nah, I didn't volunteer, I'm laying off on quarterback now," he said, though, "I can still throw the ball!"
From now on McKinney will chase the ball instead. And do so in a much bigger fashion what with all those extra pounds packed on since August. "Coach Balis, he got me right," McKinney said. So much so that over the holidays the folk back in Tunica were doing double-takes. "I'm walking down the street with my little brother and people are saying ‘he got big, he got big!' Everybody was telling me I got big."
He's gotten in shape for a big job, too. While building up the body in fall McKinney was prepping the mindset as well, watching Wilson in action so he could apply those lessons this spring. Wilson in-turn did his part to prepare a successor, since the older Dog planned on graduating into the working world after the Music City Bowl.
"B-Wil was pushing me, telling me it's hard to play inside but I could do it." So far this off-season, McKinney is showing he can indeed do the inside job. Love it, too. "I like inside because you're calling the shots. It's like playing quarterback, you know what I'm saying? I like it in there. And in the trenches with everybody coming at you, I like it in there."
Not every snap is taken from a classic mike-position now; besides wanting his guys to understand all positions, Collins has mixed and matched in spring drills. Or, lined the middle man up in an outside slot while sliding a Lawrence inside, and so on. McKinney likes the results and what it bodes for 2012.
"And we've got a lot of athletic linebackers. Matt is very fast coming off the edge, and he can play d-end at times! Skinner is big and can play inside linebacker. Bo, and me. He likes to keep us moving around so the offense won't have a clue what we're doing. So every day we do a disguise or whatever to confuse the line and confuse the quarterback."
Mississippi State fans can see the confusion for themselves in the remaining practices, and most obviously a week from Saturday at the spring game. One alumnus in particular will be paying attention, McKinney knows.
"Brandon said he's going to come push me and make me do right!"