Benardrick McKinney's Mississippi State journey

By: Bob Carskadon
Digital Media Reporter

What would you even do with him?

The tall, lanky quarterback and punter at Rosa Fort High School in Tunica, Miss., had the look of person whose body couldn't quite keep up with itself. Benardrick McKinney was 6'5" and just squeaked over 200 pounds on the scale.

His frame and position had him in football no man's land.

With a population hovering around 1,000 people, everyone in town knew McKinney, the do-everything athlete for Rosa Fort who they were sure would be a star one day, and really he already was in their minds. Problem was, no one outside of Tunica seemed to agree. They didn't even know who he was, let alone have any expectations for him. Except, eventually, for the coaches at Mississippi State.

McKinney showed up to a high school summer camp at MSU and where others may have seen a kid goofily trying to grow into his own frame, the Bulldogs' coaches saw a future stud linebacker. The only real offer he had, McKinney happily accepted and found himself on a college campus the next summer.

Arriving at 215 pounds, he surely had a few teammates scratching their heads. But by the end of his redshirt year, he'd grown to 235 pounds. By the time spring practice finished the next semester, he had senior linebackers, longtime coaches and a throng of media singing his praises, proclaiming he was the next big thing. After a year in practice of chasing down quarterbacks, snagging interceptions and fighting his way up the depth chart, McKinney emerged as a starter in his very first year of playing in the SEC.

That 2012 season, McKinney was Freshman All-SEC, All-American and Player of the Week on one occasion. He racked up 102 tackles, tops among SEC freshmen, including games with 14 tackles (Texas A&M) and 12 tackles (Tennessee) each.

By the time he finished his sophomore season in 2013, he was leading the team in sacks and tackles, and he had seemingly become the only person who could chase down Johnny Manziel, dropping him in the backfield twice in College Station. Now at a full 250 pounds and burgeoning star in the SEC, the concern from MSU fans wasn't if McKinney would be worth the scholarship. No, they were worried he'd leave school early for the NFL Draft, being eligible as a redshirt sophomore.

In only three years, McKinney had gone from a skinny and unwanted high school quarterback to a physical freak SEC linebacker with NFL star already penciled in to his life story.

His numbers to that point were impressive, as were his size and speed. However, those stats didn't quite do justice to just how athletic McKinney was and still is. In the summer of 2013, the middle linebacker had a 41.5-inch vertical, better than every single receiver at that year's NFL Combine. He ran the 40 in 4.58 seconds, could do 30 pull-ups and was able to leg press 1,100 pounds. As a sophomore.

He could have gone straight to the pros after that sophomore season, but McKinney announced his return, speaking honestly in a school-released video that "I'm coming back for one more year."

He didn't necessarily stay in school for himself. He stayed for the team, for what he thought was the potential for a special year. So he and fellow junior Dak Prescott took over. That summer, usually a slow time for players of nothing but class and weightlifting, they got to work.

As respective leaders of the defensive and offensive players, McKinney and quarterback Prescott led what nearly amounts to full practices on their own after required workouts. 'Skills and Drills,' as they called it, was voluntary, but everyone on the team showed up. No one wanted to let down their teammates, and certainly no one wanted to get on McKinney or Prescott's bad side. Split into two, McKinney coached the defense and Prescott coached the offense. They would run the team through positional drills, two-minute drills and the like. They would even lead film sessions on occasion. In a time of year when coaches aren't allowed contact, the pair took charge themselves. MSU was going to have a program-changing season in 2014, and McKinney was going to make sure of it.

Sure enough, it happened.

The Bulldogs won their first nine games, ascended to No. 1 in the country, hosted College GameDay, earned a Sports Illustrated cover and became the surprise team of the year starting the season 9-0 and tearing through the conference.

View photos of Benardrick McKinney's football career at Mississippi State.

The finish to the year was not what McKinney or anyone else wanted, dropping games to Alabama and Ole Miss down the stretch, but MSU became a different team in 2014. They earned respect, changed expectations and took their spot in the top tier of the SEC.

The reasons for the success and the players involved are many, but much of it began when the lanky kid from Tunica found his way to Mississippi State. Next up for McKinney, the Houston Texans and the NFL.

Take a look at photos from the second day of rookie minicamp.

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