Mississippi State linebacker Benardrick McKinney was one of the Southeastern Conference's most productive freshmen last season, providing a ferocious presence in the middle of the Bulldogs' defense.
His trick to such early-career production: He didn't have to think much. Veteran Cameron Lawrence did a lot of that for him.
But now Lawrence is gone — off to pursue a career in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys. So McKinney and the other linebackers are ready to prove they can handle the mental side of the game, too.
Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins said McKinney is becoming comfortable with Xs and Os during preseason camp, and that should lead to even more production this season.
"He has embraced it," Collins said. "He knows what every kid on our defense is doing."
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound McKinney was second on the team with 102 tackles last year, behind Lawrence's 120.
The sophomore has emerged as the leader of a group that's got several experienced veterans like Matthew Wells, Deontae Skinner and Ferlando Bohanna.
It's a position loaded with talent for the Bulldogs. Collins said he might have 10 linebackers capable of helping the defense on Saturdays.
"I'm very lucky to have the group of guys that I have," Collins said. "The (players) I have in my room embody everything that this program stands for — relentless effort, competitiveness, great attitude and getting better every day. I couldn't be more proud of the guys I coach every day. They come into meetings, there's 12 of them sitting there wired, ready to get better. It's not like that everywhere."
Collins is in his first season as Mississippi State's sole defensive coordinator after spending two years as a co-coordinator and linebackers coach.
He brings an infectious energy to the field, bouncing around among the players even on the 95-degree days so common during August in Starkville. The Bulldogs are trying to replace several high-profile defensive players from a year ago, including Lawrence and cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay.
Collins and the other assistants have developed a light-hearted system called "juice points," which are given to players when they make a big play or show exceptional energy on the field.
Collins said McKinney almost always leads the pack in the subjective scoring system and that in many ways he's an extension of the coaching staff on the field.
"Benardrick is just a ball of energy," Collins said. "He is everything this program stands for from a leadership, attitude and character standpoint."
McKinney said he's aware that his production needs to improve during the coming season, but it might not necessarily show in more tackles or sacks. Instead, he's helping put others in position to be successful.
That means just as much time spent in the film room as on the practice field.
"I like to be a leader," McKinney said. "I like to see other people make plays before I make them. I'm not a selfish player. The coaches are going to put me in position to make plays, so all I have to do is make them."
Collins said McKinney's role as a facilitator is even more vital because several SEC programs use the trendy high-tempo offense.
Defensive players are often on the field for several plays at a time because there's no time for substitutions, meaning decisions have to be made quickly when players are tired. The Bulldogs will get a test in the season's first weekend against Oklahoma State's high-scoring offense.
"It's very important for me to get everybody lined up," McKinney said. "If we have one mistake, these hurry-up offenses can gash you for a big play."
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