"It's been a good spring for me. All of us have been working good. I mean me and (Ferlando) Bohanna and the young linebackers, we're just playing hard and getting everybody juiced on the defense. So it's been a good spring."
The spring just ended with the annual intrasquad game, and McKinney enjoyed it as part of the victorious Maroons. Not least because it excused him from Sunday morning stadium cleanup after a 38-28 upset of the Whites. McKinney got in on four tackles as part of a well-balanced defense led by redshirt rookie Beniquez Brown, who by no coincidence at all was playing the injured Skinner's outside position. So McKinney can tease his compadre about the fun he missed.
More seriously, and to Mississippi State more encouragingly, what the handful of Maroon linebackers did on their winning side as well as work on the other sideline is great spring news. The Bulldog linebacking roster is back up to full-strength after a few seasons of limited numbers. And if the still-developing skills of younger ‘backers show up this fall, this is truly a corps to watch.
"I mean, we've got plenty of linebackers," McKinney said. "We've got the rotation going and we're just out there having fun."
Of course McKinney himself had a good time in 2012. In his first varsity season after a redshirt year, he stepped right in at the middle linebacker spot and made tackles. 102 of them to be exact, as McKinney started ten of the 13 games. Only senior Cameron Lawrence had more stops on that squad with 120. In fact, for McKinney to get in on triple-digit tackles in a unit with Lawrence, Skinner, and Matthew Wells also on the hunt only hints at his long-term potential.
Meaning, expectations for his sophomore season are exponentially greater. McKinney agrees, he ought to do even more and greater things now.
"I'm much better. I'm wiser, I know the defense. I understand the defense better. But I'm still getting better."
Maturity is one reason. But another boost to McKinney's spring growth has been how position coach and new overall coordinator Geoff Collins practiced his linebackers. Sure, when they reported for each afternoon's work there was a depth chart posted with the usual positions and titles.
Once out on the field for drills though, the labels were torn-off and thrown-away. "I mean, playing mike, nickel, sam, will," McKinney said. "Coach is trying to make us remarkable out there, and it's good." The real point being Collins truly wants each linebacker to know what his fellow two, or three in some packages, is doing on the play…and even better to be able to fill any of those positions.
Some Dogs are better at it than others of course, yet as McKinney said "We're very versatile linebackers." It meant there were times he had to scan the pre-play huddle just to see who he was being teamed-up with for that particular snap. On some defenses that would confuse the kids.
At State? "It's very fun. All of us, this spring we're getting to play together. Where last spring I'd be in, then Bo would be in and I'd be out, and Bo would be out. It's fun, some plays I get to play with Bo and then with Matt." And on and on, not overlooking senior Skinner before he hurt the leg in the March scrimmage and was excused from further action. This only allowed Wells, the former safety, or another upperclassman to get a lot more first-team spring experience. And Chris Hughes responded with his best camp of the career.
"Chris is also a very physical player," said McKinney. As well as a matured one, too. "Some plays if I do wrong he gets on me, and whenever he does wrong I get on him. He's very teachable and a good player too."
Speaking of good and teachable players…it did not take long after spring practices began for word to get around about the Browns, Beniquez and Richie. These redshirts were two very good reasons for Collins to get that rotation going early because they are ready to be on the field; Beniquez as an outside guy and Richie at any slot.
"Oh, they're going to be great players," McKinney said. "I treat them like little brothers, we hang out and stuff too. They're going to be very good players." Good enough to take some of his snaps this season? McKinney smiles at the idea. More seriously, their promising presence is pushing the third-year soph to upgrade his own game and not take anything for granted.
So he said his spring goals were improving some specific items, most notably his pass coverage. A year watching both spread and power offenses has improved his recognition of such things, now it is how to react rightly. His run-stuffing can also be better, as McKinney admits he had a freshman tendency to jump out of his gap in over-reaction.
"But now I understand the defense and I know to stay in my gap. I understand what the running back is doing, if he's going to cut back or whatever. I'm getting better and better every day in the passing game. I'm trying to work on my footwork and my transition and whatever. I'm trying to get better at that."
He's also adding more intangible elements to his game. It isn't just Lawrence's tackles that have to be replaced, but the leadership and direction that elder Dog offered. McKinney said he doesn't have to do it all himself fortunately. "We've got Bohanna and Skinner, all of are going to pitch in. All of us are going to take up the big role. We're not just going to be a one-man gang or whatever, we're going to work together to take the role."
"I've got to be confident out there. You can never doubt yourself, or think too much. If you think you're going to mess up. You've got to be a confident player to play the game. It's a lot of responsibility there. But I take that responsibility to be a leader. And I just push everybody to try to get them going. I like that responsibility."
McKinney also likes, a lot, how Collins is adapting the defense under his management. It's obviously more aggressive, but far from reckless. And Collins absolutely intends to use all his tools at linebacker, on the front, everywhere. "The rotation is better. Because last year we stayed on the field a lot. Now we can just run the linebackers in and out or whatever because all of us know the plays and understand the package. So it's going to be very exciting to see us play."
All the more so when Skinner sheds that boot, gets back to work, and stops McKinney's yapping about being a spring softy. Of course McKinney will find something else to snipe about, and be sure Skinner will give it back in-full.
"Ahh yeah, Skinner is like a big brother to me. I mean we talk every day. He comes over, or I go to his house. And we're always talking, having fun, making jokes. He's a good fellow. He's a great player, he's very competitive. I mean, he's mad he's in a boot. I know he really wants to be out here."