No wonder he now feels the obligation to set a preseason pace for the unit, regardless of cohorts' ages.
"It's just more experience. I'm just going to lead the young guys, and continue to get better every day, work hard."
McKinney has already worked hard and, by his youthful standards long, to reach this high-profile position. He practically exploded onto the SEC scene in 2012 as a redshirt frosh by notching 102 tackles, trailing only graduated Cameron Lawrence's 120 stops. Those triple-digit tackles are one very good reason McKinney is nominated this year for both the Butkus Award, given to the college game's best linebacker; and the Bednarik Award given to the top defensive player period. Yes, there has been the natural name-twisting by Mississippi State promotional staff to push McKinney for the ‘Benardrick Award.' It has a nice ring even.
The other reason McKinney has every opportunity to stay in the national spotlight is moving into the primo position for linebackers. He is assuming Lawrence's position as the middle, the mike ‘backer, though McKinney himself calls it just plain inside linebacker. And to be clear, even during the '12 season there were many situations he lined up in the central spot while Lawrence angled outside.
Still the fact is McKinney has that crucial position in the literal middle of every-defensive-thing. As well as the image that comes with it.
"I think about it sometimes. It's a big role, a big leadership role to play inside linebacker. You've got to set everybody up, make sure everybody is doing the right thing, I mean it's a big role." An enjoyable one too, even though it also means when something blows-up on the play guess who the coach stares at first? Especially because the coordinator is McKinney's own position coach Geoff Collins.
"Yeah, I'm ready to take that role," said McKinney. "If something goes wrong to stand up in front of the defense and take the blame." Which hopefully won't happen too often. McKinney is certainly making every preseason effort to prevent such season issues.
"Me, I'm working on being in the playbook more. Trying to lead better, knowing my assignment better, understanding what the offense is doing to make more plays and help other guys make more plays." Which is part of his overall job, remember. As mike-man McKinney will end up with the most total tackles, yet if he is executing correctly and drawing the according offensive attention it should open attack lanes for teammates. McKinney might not get the official assists but everyone onfield will know the score.
This he understands because, simply, McKinney can now see defense from an experience perspective.
"Oh yeah, I'm more experienced now so being in the playbook I understand the plays, understand the offenses. That opens you up that you can make more plays." Plus, there are teammates able and ready to make plays. In fact the fiercest competition on the field might be which Dog gets to the ball first. Ouside ‘backers Deontae Skinner, a Butkus nominee in his own right, and Matt Wells are proven player themselves.
"As a linebacking unit—me, Skinner, Matt, Ferlando Bohanna—it's not going to be a one-man role, we're just going to work as a unit and push everybody."
Speaking of push… For all their varsity achievements already the returning veterans and starters can't count on playing complete games this season. Collins has a stock of those younger linebackers McKinney referred to, whether redshirts or rookies, and here in August not one of them is thinking about standing on Scott Field's sideline during games.
"They're very athletic," McKinney said. "Dez Harris is just coming in. Richie Brown, Beniquez Brown they're playing good, getting in the playbook. So it's a good group." For that matter the entire linebacker corps expects to be even better this season not only because they are improved; but because the fellows in front of them should cause some havoc of their own. McKinney loves practicing behind the revised defensive line of ends Denico Autry and Preston Smith with tackles P.J. Jones and Kaleb Eulls. Every blocker they draw, or beat, is one less the linebackers need attend to.
"They're all good, they open up the run plays, they free the linebackers up to pass rush, and they're getting better every day." Though sacks will still be a linebacking challenge based on how Autry and Smith have been practicing this week. "Every day they're competing to see who can get to the quarterback the fastest or make the most plays. They're very competitive."
The competition resumes this weekend after final summer semester exams Friday. Coach Dan Mullen has set two-a-days to begin Saturday with four such dual-sessions scheduled, and a second August scrimmage next Thursday.
Meanwhile McKinney continues staking out his position as old Dog on this defense. "I'm just going to be talking more and leading all the players to get everybody involved. I'm going to be hard 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."
And should big brother get the entire linebacker unit performing to their combined abilities? Why, that will turn a few opposing offensive coordinators old before their time.