April 4, 2008

McKinley taking advantage of spring opportunity

Thrust into action earlier than expected last season because of an injury-depleted safety corps, Josh McKinley finds himself in a similar position this spring.

With Brandon Erwin (knee) and Brandon King (shoulder) out and Torri Williams (heel) limited, McKinley's ascended to the first-team defense, a spot he's in no rush to leave.

"It's sad to hear," McKinley said of the rash of injuries plaguing the secondary. "Those are my good friends, so it's too bad they got hurt and I pray they get better and recover quickly. But I was next in line, so it's my turn to step up and show what I can do.

"I'm pushing for that No. 1 spot (in the fall). That's my goal."

After injuries to Williams and Erwin last season, McKinley was forced to shed his redshirt, giving up his year on the sideline to help out the depleted troops on the field. He appeared in five games, starting one, and finished with 17 tackles and a sack.

"The poor kid last year was put in a tough situation where he was redshirting and on the scout team for three-quarters of the year," second coach Lou Anarumo said, "then it was like 'OK, you're starting.'

"So that experience will only help him. He's night and day, right now, even from where he was during the season, just as far as understanding the concepts of the defense."

By the end of the season, McKinley, a former high school quarterback, seemed to start to get into a groove. He recorded six tackles in a start against Indiana in the regular-season finale. Then, the 6-foot-1, 218-pounder had five tackles and a sack against Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl a month later.

"Toward the end, I started learning plays, learning the speed of the game," the Leander, Texas, native said. "I just got better with it. I got adjusted to the game."

McKinley says his early apprenticeship is paying off now, as he feels much better adjusted to safety than he did when he made the move last August. He had played defense only minimally at Leander High School, getting a chance at safety as a junior and cornerback as a senior.

But making the full-time switch for the Big Ten presented a much larger challenge. Adjusting to the speed of the others around him was the biggest hurdle, he admits. That much seemed evident in his first couple games, when collected just one tackle against Northwestern and Penn State.

In his last three, however, as his knowledge of multiple defensive schemes increased, McKinley's impact greatly improved.

"It got me ready," McKinley said. "I got thrown in for five games, started off a little slower, but as the season progressed, I got in a little more. I got adjusted to the speed of the game and now I'm ready for what's to come.

"It opened my eyes and let me know that I can play."

Anarumo says McKinley's put himself in a position to contribute in the fall, whether as a starter or in a backup role.

"He made some more plays and was setting in a little bit," Anarumo said of McKinley's five-game debut. "He's a guy that's got a nose for the ball.

"Once he gets a full summer of lifting and running under his belt, he's just going to be that much better of a player."

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