Over the next several weeks here on the HailState Beat we’ll be running a new football-related series each week, a series of series’ if you will, and we start this week with Rising Stars: names you need to know before the season starts. Some of these will be more obvious than others, but the goal will be to single out the players you may not have heard of or who have yet to make a big name for themselves on the field, in no particular order, who will be stars by late November.
Our first rising star: redshirt freshman linebacker “Little K.J.” Benardrick McKinney. Why Little K.J.? His coaches and teammates (as well as myself) all find that McKinney bears a striking resemblance, both in stature and style of play, to former Mississippi State star linebacker and current Seattle Seahawk K.J. Wright.
Said senior and fellow linebacker Cam Lawrence after the Maroon-White spring game, “When we saw him play, we were like, ‘Wow, this has to be K.J.’s twin.’”
Of course, calling McKinney “little” is akin to calling Bill Gates middle class. Listed at 6’,5”, Little K.J. is taller than every receiver on the roster, as well as the majority of the defensive players.
When he got to campus, McKinney only weighed 215 pounds, with a wingspan that looked more like Jarvis Varnado’s than any football player (though he did average 12 points and 10 rebounds per game as a basketball player in high school at Rosa Fort in Tunica, Miss.) In less than a year, however, McKinney put on 20 pounds, reaching 235 pounds by the end of spring practices in April.
McKinney’s name is one that regularly popped up throughout the spring, catching the eyes of reporters, teammates and coaches for chasing down running backs and quarterbacks, snagging interceptions and moving up the depth chart, where he is now listed as a co-starter at middle linebacker. His most high-profile moment came when he grabbed an interception in the spring game, spurring Lawrence to once again sing his praises.
“Benardrick, he never ceases to exceed my expectations,” Lawrence said. “He’s really developed. I’ve seen him come a long way this spring, and in training camp [in August] he’ll do just as much.”
If Little K.J. can become full-size K.J., Lawrence won’t be the only one with exceeded expectations.
“Physically he has those dimensions,” defensive coordinator Chris Wilson said. “Physically, he has a lot of length and makes a lot of plays.”