By Ryan Roberts | @RiseNDraft
You would be hard pressed finding a more talented secondary in all of college football over the one that currently resides in Eugene, Oregon. Littered with All-PAC 12 performers, All-Americans and future NFL players, the sheer depth on the back end for the Ducks rivals that of most NFL secondaries.
From arguably the top cornerback duo in seniors and Second Team All-PAC 12 honorees, Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir, to Jim Thorpe finalist Jevon Holland, to Rose Bowl MVP Brady Breeze and 11-game starter Nick Pickett, the Ducks boast several defensive stalwarts that look like a solid bet to hear their names called during the 2021 NFL Draft when it eventually rolls around.
Overshadowed slightly amongst an insane amount of depth, uncommon for your typical college secondary, redshirt sophomore defensive back Verone McKinley III may just be the most talented player on the backend for the Ducks and the highest draft pick when all is said and done.
Wearing a bunch of different hats for the Oregon defense, McKinley takes parts from various players, forming the basis for the versatile defender that Duck fans have become accustomed to every Saturday.
“Jamal Adams, Ed Reed, Earl Thomas and Devin McCourty are some of my favorites.”
A bit of a film junky, McKinley prides himself on his preparation. When you aren’t watching him making plays all over the field on Sundays, checking the film room is a pretty safe bet.
“I just love soaking up the game, a lot of different guys and styles.”
The former Hebron High School cornerback has experienced an evolution since showing up on campus in Eugene, making the switch from outside cornerback to the nickel, now settling into his role at safety. Before that positional journey began, McKinley was adamant in creating his own identity, leaving Carrollton, Texas and the football hotbed to head west to the beautiful University of Oregon scenery.
“I wanted to do something different. It is a beautiful campus with high level football.”
Carving out his own path meant making a name for himself amongst the most talented defensive backfield in all of college football. As you can imagine, being amongst such a talented group, the cream rises to the top. There is no bigger challenge than creating your niche in a group of future NFL players.
“It is a super competitive (defensive back) room. We all want to see each other eat but also want to make an individual impact.”
Making the most of every opportunity, McKinley took full advantage of his debut season in 2019 after redshirted during his true freshman year. A part of his Freshman All American nomination this past season, Verone would post four interceptions and six pass breakups on top of 46 total tackles. Mixed amongst such a talented secondary, that level of production amongst itself is even more impressive than just the raw statistics.
With the opt outs of cornerback Thomas Graham and safeties Jevon Holland and Brady Breeze due to the ongoing issues surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, a leadership role has been placed on McKinley on top of his playmaking ability for the talented Duck defense. Whatever his role for the team, McKinley has sky high expectations for the rest of the 2020 season… goals that tell the full story of the confidence and mindset carried by Oregon star Verone McKinley III.
“We want to be a playoff contender, win the Rose Bowl of course. We don’t want to lose any games.”
FROM A SCOUT’S EYE
Players possessing “elite traits” is something that is thrown out there a ton in draft circles… meaning abilities that set them apart, making how a player wins more and more translatable. It doesn’t take long to figure out the area that makes McKinley special.
Honing his experience at both cornerback and nickel early in his career, he has the short area quickness to close on pass receivers in a hurry, making a ton of plays on the football in the air. Combine that with phenomenal instincts and spatial awareness and we have a special short area athlete who is able to click and close from depth with high efficiency.
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The best defenders always seem to be around the football. Verone McKinley is no different, boasting phenomenal eye discipline and clear understanding of routes developing in front of him. Creating turnovers is sometimes tough to quantify. In a lot of instances, it’s circumstantial, relying more on luck than instinctual instances.
In a lot of cases, however, players who routinely find themselves in the proper position do in fact force the issue. So call it instincts. Call it luck. Call it bad offensive execution. Call it whatever you want… we can argue about it as McKinley is taking the ball back the other way for six.
What’s that old saying, you don’t find the ball, the ball finds you? Ehhh I forget. Either way, it seems pretty relevant when popping on McKinley’s film. Even when it’s not his zone responsibility, he seems to find a way to get into the action. An incredibly difficult play, Verone is able to show outstanding concentration and ball skills working near the sideline.
The ability to be versatile on the backend is becoming more and more vital for NFL defenses who have to counteract an influx of talented young pass catchers. The safety position in general is one that is becoming interchangeable, asking more for variety than compartmentalized roles in the secondary. That’s where a player like Verone McKinley III shines brightest… wearing multiple hats for a defense.
What McKinley does in the passing game, he let me in on a big factor in his development.
“My physicality, absolutely. I can force my will on offenses.”
More than just a pass coverage specialist, McKinley is a complete safety who can impact opposing offenses in both the run and pass game. The next time you start talking about the elite defensive backs in all of college football, make sure to keep #23 from Oregon near the top of your list.
HOW HIGH CAN HE GO?
Despite being the youngest of the talented Oregon secondary, McKinley just might be their highest draft selection when all is said and done. With this type of alignment versatility, on top of making plays all over the field, McKinley is the type of secondary piece that can change the ways defenses run schematically. With the NFL firmly in his future
You think NFL teams are going to be in the market for a highly talented defensive back who has the versatility to line up all over the backend? That’s what we call a rhetorical question. The more you can do on the backend, and at a high level, the more valuable a player you become. With experience at safety, nickel and cornerback, McKinley is capable of matching up against various skill sets and size profiles. With the impact that current Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu can have on a defense, that style is becoming more and more warranted. While recreating safeties in the Honey Badger role might not be feasible, considering what an outlier he is in terms of size, McKinley III looks to have the skill set to do just that.
So how high will McKinley end up going when he chooses to throw his hat in the ring? That is going to go on a team to team basis. Whoever does pull the trigger, a creative defensive coordinator who does not limit the impact that McKinley can have is essential. Playmakers on the back end to this high of a degree do not come around every day. A top two round valuation should not be out of the realm of possibilities.
The real question is just when McKinley will choose to make the jump to the next level. As a redshirt sophomore, it is always possible that the 2021 NFL Draft cycle presents that opportunity if he puts together a dynamic campaign. More realistically he is probably a 2022 entree with this condensed and haphazard PAC 12 season.
Whenever it does happen, a team is certainly getting a playmaker on the backend of their defense. For McKinley, that moment will be a monumental moment, encapsulating all the hard work that he has put in. “It will be because of all the long hours and late nights.” If we are counting the nights, there aren’t many left until we see Verone McKinley III on an NFL roster.
While some will hype up the other outstanding defensive backs who are on track to hear their names called during the 2021 NFL Draft, make no mistake about it, #23 is going to be the best when all is said and done.
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