On a defense that features little star power, redshirt junior linebacker Bernardrick McKinney (#50) is easily the most recognizable name on the Mississippi State defensive unit. A "long" linebacker with explosiveness and size, McKinney is easily the most draftable player on the MSU roster not named Dak Prescott.
But what makes the middle linebacker the bane of existence for offensive coordinators across the SEC? Let's take a closer look.
Who in the Heck is Bernardrick McKinney?
The 6'5" 249 pound middle linebacker is a well-known commodity for the Bulldogs, a three year starter who, after redshirting his freshman year, has started all but the first three games of his active career in Starkville. No player on the Mississippi State defense is more experienced than McKinney, but it's not his veteran status alone that makes him invaluable to a defense that has been extremely stingy against the run for the majority of the 2014 season (and in the SEC West, to boot...easily the toughest division in all of college football.)
After considering entry into the 2014 NFL Draft following his stellar redshirt sophomore campaign, McKinney elected instead to be the anchor of a seasoned defensive unit that has helped Mississippi State reach the top ranking in the nation and an undefeated record. And that move proved beneficial, as McKinney is having his best year in Bulldog maroon, leading the team with 55 tackles (28 solo, 27 assisted), 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, three passes broken up, three passes defended three QB hurries, three fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. The Rosa Fort High School (Tunica, MS) product currently sits upon nearly every defensive award list that is applicable, including the Bednarik (semi-finalist), Nagurski, Butkus and Lombardi awards.
This success is not a recent development, as McKinney amassed 173 tackles during his freshman and sophomore seasons in Starkville. He started all 13 games for the Bulldogs in 2013 at middle linebacker and led the team with 71 tackles. Last season, he also showed his ability to make impact plays on defense, tying for the team lead in tackles-for-loss with seven and leading his defense with three sacks and two fumble recoveries.
In 2012, as a redshirt freshman, McKinney was named to several first-team Freshman All-American teams, playing in all 13 games and starting in the last 10. He accrued an eye-popping 102 tackles, a number that made McKinney the leading tackler among freshmen in the SEC (second nationally) and placed him sixth in tackles among all players in the SEC, regardless of class ranking.
The freakish athlete was a multi-sport player in high school, and was his team's starting quarterback as well. McKinney has NFL scouts drooling, with his combination of great size, explosive speed and football IQ. His size is much greater than the typical NFL linebacker, drawing comparisons to oversized All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher. McKinney has been rated the best NFL prospect in the state of Mississippi, and Mel Kiper Jr. rates the Bulldog ‘backer as the top underclassman inside linebacker available in the 2015 NFL Draft. NFL.com rated him among the top 14 "freakish" athletes in college football this season (see more here), and he has done nothing through nine games this year to contradict his selection to several pre-season All-SEC teams.
The primary knock against McKinney is that, as is the case with many extremely gifted athletes, he tends to allow his considerable physical gifts to buoy him against lesser competition. Rather than improving as a whole player, McKinney has been said to rely upon his physical talents rather than technique, something that he will not be able to do against NFL-caliber competition. Despite the criticism, in 2014 McKinney has shown technical improvement, especially in shedding blocks with his long arms, and the ceiling remains very high for McKinney, who is expected to make the jump to the NFL following the conclusion of his junior season.
As someone who goes against McKinney regularly on the practice field, MSU quarterback Dak Prescott can vouch for McKinney as a player and leader.
"Bernardrick is a great leader, great player. Seeing him on the other side of the ball, I know he has the defense going with the juice points, and it's hard for me to not get this offense going. We just feed off each other."
Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said that McKinney is the fuel in the Bulldogs' defensive engine, as he not only operates at a high level, but helps propel his teammates as well.
"Bernardrick is just a ball of energy. He is everything this program stands for from a leadership, attitude and character standpoint."
What to expect from Bernardrick McKinney against Alabama
Manning the gut of the stout Bulldog defense, McKinney specializes as a run-stopper and pass-rusher, though his height does give him some leverage in pass coverage as well (as evidenced by his three PBUs and three PDs.) Mississippi State has one of the nation's worst defenses against the pass, but the run defense ranks among the top 25 (22nd) nationally. The Mississippi State defensive line is deep and talented, but McKinney and fellow linebacker Beniquez Brown are run-stuffers who understand the finer points of the 4-3 defense employed by Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins.
McKinney and company could give the Alabama offense fits by stuffing the run and forcing the pass, though the Bulldogs would do so at great risk, with Alabama quarterback Blake Sims and All-American wide out Amari Cooper attacking a mediocre Bulldog secondary. McKinney will most definitely play a role in the Bulldog pass rush, as the Bullies' best hope of limiting the Bama passing game will come not through the secondary, but through the pass rush. Fortunately for Alabama, the Tide offensive line has been excellent versus the pass rush this year, despite their inconsistency in run blocking.
McKinney's wingspan, speed and explosiveness will give him an opportunity to make plays, as he is active and is often atop the Bulldog tackles list. With a consistent three year history of excellence, there's no reason to think that the trend won't continue against Alabama, even if the Tide offense finds a way to minimize his impact on the game.
Again, though McKinney isn't a one-man wrecking crew, he is an impact player around whom offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will have to game plan. If Alabama can tie him up and seal him away from the action, that impact may be limited. If left to his own devices, however, McKinney can be one of the SEC's most disruptive defenders against both the pass and the run.