Just don't expect McKinney to talk much about himself. "I don't really care about stats, I'm just trying to make the defense better. I'm very hard on myself. Every game I'm not satisfied with what I did, because I could have done better. Missing tackles or whatever. So I'm not satisfied with the games I've played."
It makes one wonder what would satisfy him, after posting 55 stops so far split almost evenly between first contacts (26) and assists (29). Certainly the defensive staff is satisfied how McKinney operates in this scheme. The man himself prefers how he is fitting in with all those proven teammates.
"It's a good environment, playing out there with Boyd, Cam, Banks, all those stars. It's great being out there with them." Ummm, Mr. McKinney, you realize you might be shining pretty brightly yourself these days? A shrug from the developing star; "I'm just trying to play a big role on the team, make the defense better."
Fact is McKinney's prowess, whether lined up inside or outside—he's equally adept either way—has made his fellow ‘backers better too. Maybe McKinney is taking some stats away from Lawrence, last year's runaway tackles leader, and Skinner. But he has freed them to handle other assignments depending on that game's scheme. Even fans familiar with the Dog defense have a hard time telling who is the mike-man these days, Lawrence or McKinney.
So imagine opponents' confusion on the subject. The key though is keeping things clear among the corps, especially in final pre-game prep McKinney said.
"Me and Cam are roommates in the hotel and we talk, we look through our tips and our checks. And I go by what he says and he goes by what I say." Which is wonderful…when they're both correct. Even the image of a first-year starter telling old Dog Lawrence which way to go is fascinating, since it is the senior best-known for recognizing plays and resetting the defense. That's a measure of the respect McKinney is earning.
And if one whiffs? "I mean, it's both ways! I'll be wrong sometimes, he'll be wrong sometimes. But we'll agree to trust each other to make the right check." And trust is absolute among the three (or four if Matthew Wells gets the matchup call) starters as Lawrence, Skinner, and McKinney operate in tandem.
"The chemistry is very good," said McKinney. "We play a lot, we joke around a lot, we have fun when we get the chance to hang out. So the chemistry is real good."
That chemistry is about to receive its most serious acid test of 2012, against an Alabama offense that in its own way is a brutally efficient as the Crimson Tide defense. They set the tone immediately, play the matchup percentages effectively, and just don't make mistakes. So, how does the Bulldog defense play this one? Particularly against the SEC's best rushing attack?
"We're just going to do our assignment. I mean, Coach is putting us in the right position to make big plays, so we're just going to execute our plays. We're going to spy our gaps and run to the ball." Or, chase potential targets for A.J. McCarron precision passing. "We're going to disguises and play around. I know our d-linemen are going to get a lot of pressure on them."
Easier said than done, not least because State's defense has not bagged many quarterbacks for the season so far. Thing is, if the first and sub defense needs a good preparation for McCarron, they need only look to their own starting offense. McKinney sees so many similarities in how Tyler Russell picks coverages apart.
"At practice if I make the wrong read Tyler is going to pick it up real quick and go by what we give them." So at least the Bulldogs understand the degree of Saturday's difficulty against McCarron, the SEC's most efficient passer. "He's a great quarterback, if we mess up I'm sure he's going to capitalize on it. Me and Cam are going to change up our disguises so they think we're in man when we're in zone, and play around with him."
Oh, and while McKinney doesn't put himself anywhere near the class of the respective starters this week, he was once upon a time a high school quarterback. So he does have an idea what the passers are looking for or seeing. "That helps a lot too! I think about what would I do in a position like this. So yeah, that helps."
What will help #13 Mississippi State most against #1 Alabama is, naturally, having the best, most complete performance of this season. Both Bulldog sides agree they have not peaked yet and more is there for the 2012 tapping. In some sense it is a shame this matchup wasn't scheduled for November as it brings together the last remaining West unbeaten, the winner taking the faster track to Atlanta.
"I mean they're a great team. Mississippi State, we're a great team," McKinney said. "We're just going to give them their props, and go out and play. I'm just going to block all the fans out and key on the field, go by what is on the field.
"It's going to be a good game. I know both of us are going to play hard, it comes down to whoever executes the best to win the game."