"To be honest I had long thought process with my family. I wanted to get closer to graduating and better myself. I should be able to graduate in December." He is on that graduation track because McKinney, a sports sophomore, is in his third year of college after redshirting for the 2011 season.
This pushed a player only half-way into his varsity career to a point he could consider leaving early. McKinney does clarify that he didn't seek a lot of expert input from outside the program, though. "I didn't really talk to anybody. I discussed it with friends and my family." And, of course, his coaches. Coach Dan Mullen must have blinked at the possibility, however slim, of losing his defensive center-piece at least one season too soon.
But he didn't show it to McKinney. Just the opposite. "Coach Mullen is a great coach," McKinney said. "He's like a daddy figure for all his players. Of course he wants the best for me, and whoever the players that wanted to leave or whatever had his support." None of the underclassmen are leaving, fortunately for the 2014 team in general and defense in particular.
That's why, "We're going to work harder in the off-season," said McKinney. "I want to be a better leader than I was this year to push everybody to the level I know we can be. The linebackers, I know we're going to grind. It's got to be everybody pushing each other in the off-season to be a great defense."
Which in-turn will only improve his own draft stock for 2015 as a fourth-year junior. The drop-off in McKinney's statistics from a year before is deceiving because his ‘solo' tackles were almost equal the two years, 45 and 42; and his tackles for losses went up. McKinney's assists were down for the best of Bulldog reasons. There were other linebackers, not to mention safeties and linemen and cornerbacks and all, getting to the ball too.
Also, as middle-man in Coach Geoff Collins' system McKinney was as responsible for organizing everyone as cashing in his own statistics. That's just fine for a leader, he said. Still don't get any idea McKinney is not ambitious. He goes into spring semester more motivated than ever with some specific goals. "I just want more flexibility as a player," he said. Yes, showing his stuff at outside and middle was flexible, for sure. But…
"The coaches put me in great position to make the plays that I should have made. But I have to capitalize on making hard plays. I've got to make bigger plays."
Which means bigger work. Speaking of which, as soon as he got off the phone McKinney was headed for a running workout Wednesday. And the team is due to meet Rick Court, who has the head strength and conditioning coach position left open just this week with the departure of Matt Balis. McKinney has heard good things of the new guy, but he will miss the master of ‘Balis Mall'.
"He's an unbelievable man, he's an awesome warrior. I hate to see him leave." At the same time, though, McKinney is part of a mostly-veteran Bulldog team that should handle this transition just fine. "We have a lot of leaders on the team, so most definitely he trained us well. And we're going to keep pulling."
A total of 17 former Bulldogs were on NFL rosters and practice squads during the 2013 regular season. One of them, running back Anthony Dixon, is playing in this weekend's conference championships with San Francisco. His old MSU teammate, linebacker K.J. Wright, has to watch his Seattle team play the 49ers for the NFC this weekend with a broken foot. Defensive lineman Tommy Kelly is sidelined by a knee injury for New England's AFC title game.
In all 21 Bulldogs who spent at least one season with Mullen at Mississippi State have played professionally.