McKinley: Bigger, Faster and...Taller!?!
"Bigger, faster, stronger."
You have undoubtedly heard this modern day mantra, perhaps hundreds or even thousands of times. It succinctly describes what most every college football player seems to devote his entire off-season to becoming.
After all, if you expect to succeed in the SEC, you have to keep up with the Joneses. Or more precisely, the Tebows, or the Morenos... you get the point.
As Gamecock wide receiver Kenny McKinley heads into his senior season, whether or not he is stronger or faster than at this time last year, his performance on the field will soon reveal. He IS bigger, however. But surprisingly, not just bigger in muscle mass and the improved physique that results from hard work in the weight room.
Unusually, and perhaps even amazingly, McKinley's improvement in the "Bigger" category is of the vertical variety. Yes, despite having celebrated his 21st birthday in late January, the soon-to-be all-time receptions leader in USC history says he has enjoyed an unexpected surge in height, not weight, since the first of the year.
"I've grown an inch and a half since the end of last season," a grinning McKinley reported Sunday afternoon following Coach Steve Spurrier's pre-N.C. State press conference. "I had a late growth spurt, and I'm a little over 6-foot-1 and weigh about 185 (pounds) now. I've been in the weight room during the offseason, and I feel stronger, I feel faster, I feel better than ever now. And taller!"
After catching a Carolina single-season record 77 passes last fall, tops in the SEC, it is unclear what additional advantage McKinley's sudden surge in height might provide. And to hear the talkative, yet disarmingly modest Mableton, Ga. product tell it, the three biggest reasons this will be a big year offensively for the Gamecocks involve players other than him.
"I definitely can convince you (that the offense will be productive)," McKinley insisted. "I'm gonna give you three things: Tommy Beecher, Jared Cook, and Weslye Saunders. Those guys are going to be the difference makers for the offense.
"Beecher, with his smarts and his arm, I just believe he is going to have a great season," McKinley explained. "With Cook, he's a special type of tight end. He's hard for linebackers to cover, and he's also hard for DB's to cover because they are so short. I know he's really gonna get off this year.
"With Weslye on the other side of him (Cook), he's a really big guy who can run great routes and has some speed for his size. Those guys are gonna open up the offense for the rest of us. When those guys get off, they (defenses) aren't gonna be able to double team me.
"And with Dion (LeCorn) doing his thing on the other side, it's gonna be hard for defenses to cover us. As long as we get time (to get open) from the offensive line, I believe all kind of great things are going to happen."
McKinley has seen his fair share of quarterbacks since catching at least one pass in 10 of 12 games as a true freshman back in 2005. So how does Beecher rate in comparison to the others?
"I think he is the best quarterback I have been with since I've been here," McKinley said of Beecher. "He knows he has the starting role and has a lot of confidence. Sometimes when the defense might try to overwhelm him or bring too many (blitz), he's so smart he checks out of the plays. I've never been around a quarterback that is so smart. Tommy Beecher's gonna be the man."
Not surprisingly, Carolina's signal caller is similarly excited to have a preseason all-SEC wide receiver to be the ying to his yang.
"He's been a leader out there (in camp)," Beecher said of McKinley. "He tells people where they need to go. He's been really understanding about this quarterback situation and told me personally how much confidence he has in me. It's always a good feeling looking out to the left or looking out to the right and seeing Kenny out there, because he's always going to do his best to get open, and he'll catch the ball for you."
"He has an uncanny knack of being able to get open," Beecher continued. "He has great feet. Coach Spurrier and Coach Spurrier Jr. always talk about how great his feet are, and with his feet he's able to get open. If we can get him the ball, he's a playmaker, and he can make some special plays happen."
McKinley enters the 2008 season needing only seventeen catches to eclipse Sterling Sharpe's Carolina record of 169 career receptions, a record he would much prefer to obtain in Williams-Brice Stadium in front of the Gamecock faithful.
"I hope to break it at home," the All-American candidate reported. "Maybe if I have sixteen (total catches, one short of the record) and its an away game and we're beating somebody good enough, maybe I'll say, 'Hey coach, hold up, let me get it at home. Because I want to share it with the fans and everybody here at Williams-Brice... that's a real important thing to me."
But first things first. N.C. State comes calling Thursday night with a defense that, judging by game tape, has McKinley impressed yet optimistic about exploiting.
"They've got a good defensive line," McKinley offered. "Number 97, I don't know his name, but watching him on film, he was breaking through other teams like tissue paper. So if our (offensive) line holds those guys up, I think we have a chance to have a real good day out there.
"They're kind of undersized in the secondary," he continued. "So Jared Cook and Weslye (Saunders) can maybe really get off on those guys because they've got the height and the size to really cause some problems for them."
As for the possibility of maybe taking a snap or two in a special package designed for the former quarterback at South Cobb High School outside of Atlanta, McKinley just chuckled and said "that would be a game week type of situation."
And for a guy who at the age of 21 has grown an inch-and-a-half in the last 9 months, probably not too much of a surprise.
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