Russell has been here before and as quarterback gets plenty practice talking to press. Defensive tackle Eulls dealt with the national media as a high school senior so this isn't likely to faze him, either.
McKinney? Facing several hundred writers in one arena, as well as making the seemingly-endless cycle of broadcast media rooms, well this is new to him. But remember…he'll never show nerves. He's a linebacker.
And a Dog-goned good one, as 2012 showed. McKinney exploded onto the SEC scene as a redshirt freshman, posting a 102-tackle season. Not only was he second-best on the Bulldog team in tackles, trailing only Cameron Lawrence's 120, but the new kid tied for sixth in the entire conference in tackles-per-game. This earned McKinney not just Freshman All-SEC by both Coaches and A.P., but Freshman All-American.
"It's a blessing," he said. "To be an All-American is something you grow up dreaming about but not really thinking it's possible." Obviously it was very possible. Just as sending a sophomore, albeit a third-year edition, to speak for Mississippi State at Media Day is now not only possible but preferable. McKinney has already shown he has all-star ability at a young age, so using this SEC stage to get the name in a lot more minds should put the kid in better post-season position. After all, he has been nominated already for both the Butkus Award (given to the country's best linebacker) and Bednarik Award (best overall defender) watch-lists.
By non-coincidence cohort and senior outside ‘backer Deontae Skinner is also up for the Butkus. Hmmm, one wonders what will be tougher: winning one of these awards, or being top tackler on this team? Not, McKinney said, that there will be a personal competition ‘tween the two. "Nah, we talked about it, but it's just a great honor. I mean it's going to be a great honor if I win, or Deontae wins."
The interesting twist to McKinney's selection as a Mississippi State spokesman has to do with, yes, talking. Not merely to media this week, but his linebacker partners and the entire Bulldog defense this season. Ooops, make that preseason too. With honors and age comes greater responsibility, McKinney is learning.
"The coaches push me to be one of the leaders on the team. So I don't think about me being young, I try to encourage everybody to get better. I mean, just be the best." As well as among the first to speak up in the huddle or as the squad lines-up and looks-over the offense. Last year Lawrence took that lead. This year, more of such duty should fall to the sophomore.
"It's going to be bigger. Cam helped me out with a lot of stuff. The stuff I wasn't sure about, he encouraged me to make that call, make that call," said McKinney. Now, "I'm just going to lead the young guys and continue to get better every day, work hard."
Catch that ‘the young guys' bit? This soph even sounds like a veteran after just one varsity season. Then again the linebacker bunch is almost entirely underclassmen, as Skinner is the single senior. The oldest Dog will set his own leadership tone and do it well. Yet as McKinney said, "It's not a one-man game. All of us are going to push together as a linebacker corps."
In fact McKinney can't take his own status for granted next month, with junior Ferlando Bohanna right there to provide a healthy push. Beyond them, "We've got Zach Jackson, Matt Wells, Beniquez Brown, Richie Brown. Every position is going to be different to us, I might end up coming down and playing d-end, you never know!"
That's no joke either. McKinney certainly has the size at 6-5, 235, to handle line-of-scrimmage assignments. It's his range and reach that tantalize position coach and overall coordinator Geoff Collins, as well as McKinney's grasp of the game. He's a former high school quarterback, remember. McKinney said his key to improvement comes in keeping that tall frame low enough so as to shed blocks faster, and understanding not just coverages but how to adjust from run-to-pass on the fly. Or vice-versa.
"I want to improve my transitioning. And being a better leader, a vocal leader on the field."
That's a must because linebackers like McKinney, as well as leaders at the line and in the secondary are being taught to do more things this season. Knowing what to do is the first step, but that's still useless without recognizing when to do it. This falls upon a real leader to call out directions…then let everybody loose. Because McKinney likes what he hears from Collins.
"More sacks, more tackles for losses. More mayhem. That's just the definition of mayhem, we're going to keep the offense guessing and make all the plays we didn't make last year. And capitalize on the plays this year," said McKinney.
"We're going to get better. Coach Collins is going to get on us, the players are going to get on each other. All the small things we messed-up on last year, that's all going to be improved."
Speaking of transitions, Media Day is the annual ‘start' of the college football season to media and fans. Players, now, most of them have been on campus for weeks if not months and working out, doing unstructured drills with each other, getting treatment. So they've been in a semi-season mindset all along.
Still, "We already feel excitement. We're going to take one day at a time and when the game comes go out there with juice and play hard."
First though, McKinney has to talk to the public, as well as ignore the sly jibes from Jackson about facing all the cameras or enduring a bumpy flight (as the '12 crew did) over. His teammate's tactics aren't working though. Linebackers never show nerves.
So, "I'm just going to be me!"