“I mean the coaches put me in a great position to make plays. But to make bigger plays, to make unbelievable plays, like people are like ‘oh wow!’. Plays like that.”
There’s a measure of ‘wow’ talk already about McKinney this summer. The Mississippi State junior made the watch lists for the four major post-season awards that an elite defender can earn. Those are the Butkus Award, obviously for linebackers like McKinney; the Bednarik Award; as well as the Nagurski Trophy (all defensive players) and Lombardi Award. That latter is nominally for defensive linemen but since McKinney works everywhere from out of his middle linebacker starting position his candidacy is legitimate.
On the more local level, McKinney was tabbed a second-team linebacker in last week’s SEC Media Days, though he missed first-team stature by just four votes. Come December when the all-star teams that count are listed, McKinney ought rank with the league’s leading linebackers…and being first-team in the Southeastern Conference at his position is as good as all-American.
Certainly having his name listed all over the college football landscape is not taking any edge off McKinney’s ambitions for 2014. It’s only making him hungrier, in fact.
“Knowing me, I have high expectations of myself. I mean I feel that I’m just a normal player to me I guess I like being hard on myself. My friends tell me whoa, you’re good! But me? I’m really not satisfied with what I’m doing right now.”
This sort of pre-season talk does satisfy his head coach. “I think he’s on every watch list around,” Coach Dan Mullen said. “He’s a great play-maker for us in the middle, he makes plays that we need to have made on the defensive side of the ball.” But, Mullen adds, “He’s a great leader for us, which is even more important. He is a vocal, emotional leader of the defense.”
McKinney’s leadership is not confined to the game field. If anything it is now, in the diminishing days before 2014 team practices begin, where he is making a larger impact on how the season should develop.
“The coaches can only do so much,” McKinney said. “They can make us go out to practice, or give us workout time. But for us to win the SEC championship we have to get together, like we’re doing now, and say let’s go do defensive drills, stay after and do more than other teams are doing.”
OK, almost any college ballplayer will brag about how ‘hard’ they are working this summer. Because they all think they are going at it extra. In Mississippi State’s case though the talk means something this July. McKinney and an ‘inner circle’ of Bulldog veterans who have tasted some career success want more…and want the entire roster to share their vision as well as their ambitions.
So…“The leadership got together, it was about eleven of us. We talked and said we need to do extra work if we want to compete with the big teams and go to Atlanta. Dak and I got the offense and defense together and we said we’re going to put a little more work in.”
Dak as in Prescott of course, who is McKinney’s offensive counterpart as well as fellow member of Mullen’s 2011 recruiting class. Since both redshirted as freshmen they remain on the same career-track here as 2014, and it is no knock on this year’s seniors that a couple of juniors are acknowledged as the squad leaders going into preseason grinding.
”Dak is getting better every day. He’s seeking to be the best,” McKinney said. “He’s a great leader and can’t nobody beat him.” Though, he admits, an aspect of that latter part does get under a linebacker’s skin during practices. “Because we can’t get nowhere near the quarterback! I get mad in practice when they run the ball they get the first down!” At least McKinney does have an understanding of Prescott’s position, having played high school quarterback himself. He doesn’t miss calling offensive cadence now since he does ‘quarterback’ the defense these days, but McKinney would enjoy the chance to take a snap or throw a pass if offered.
But that would only interfere with Prescott’s own candidacy for post-season honors as a junior, which is now including some casual Heisman Trophy talk. For his part McKinney is content chasing any of the aforementioned defensive honors since to win them would mean the Bulldog defense as a whole has had a huge season. Which is what McKinney counts on anyway, awards or not.
Either way, ”It’s a great honor, not really coming from much in Tunica, Mississippi. My Mom always told me to be humble, so it take it day by day and just be a great player.”
McKinney’s home address actually has to do with why he is wearing Maroon and White, he pointed out. He was just following the lead of other local high school legends.
“I liked Cam Lawrence and K.J. Wright, both of them. Both of them were 15 minutes from my home town either way. I like K.J. because every time I go somewhere they compare me to him saying we’re similar. And Cam two years ago we played together and he inspired me to be the best linebacker I could be.”
Here’s the really intriguing aspect about Bulldog linebacking in 2014. Good, or great even, as McKinney can be, he will share the middle position. Coach Geoff Collins intends to rotate his corps not just from philosophy but because he can. And will. Sophomore Richie Brown deserves his share of middle-man snaps too, both from his own maturing abilities and because McKinney has contributed to the development. That says something about the ‘team’ mentality at Mississippi State in all areas of the squad.
”Benardrick has embraced that,” Mullen said. Plus, “I think he plays with an unbelievable chip on his shoulder. I think he was a two-star recruit out of high school, wasn’t really recruited at all. We saw him, thought hey this guy has tremendous ability, tremendous growth potential. I think he plays with a little bit of that chip on his shoulder that hey, nobody wanted to give me an opportunity and I want to prove everybody wrong.”
McKinney has proven himself in all college areas, as he is ahead of academic schedule with a December graduation planned. That’s another form of leadership, after all. And the degree timing could coincide nicely with draft timing. McKinney did consider the NFL coming out of the sophomore season, his first as full-time starter, before committing to the junior year. By this time next year the Tunica man could be in somebody’s training camp…or he might opt for another college season. Just having such choice is a luxury he’s earned the hard way and the right way.
It also allows McKinney to give complete attention to this coming campaign. And he is.
”We’re just going to take one game at a time and play hard.”