Aug 6, 2012
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, IL - It was about this time last year when the Saluki football coaching staff approached LaSteven McKinney and asked if he'd be willing to switch from running back to wide receiver.
With the arrival of Iowa transfer Jewel Hampton, the backfield was in excellent shape at the beginning of the 2011 fall camp. The same could not be said for the receiving corps. They needed more speed -- a breakaway threat.
One of the fastest players on the team, McKinney clocked in at 4.46 in the 40. He was a 3-star recruit by Rivals.com and a guy who could surely inject life into the offense, regardless of where he played. But would he be willing to take up a new position on short notice?
The answer was a resounding "yes."
"We were deep at running back and needed some help at wide receiver," McKinney said. "I had no problem doing that. The more positions you can play, the more valuable you are at the next level."
McKinney was moved to the H receiver, which is the slot position in Southern's three-wideout attack. It was the perfect spot for the speedy 5-foot-9, 173-pound athlete.
"I played some receiver in high school, but the transition was difficult," he said. "In high school, you kind of do things out of instinct, but at this level, you have to learn the proper technique and timing. Everything was coming at me so fast at first."
When projected starter Luke Standiford got hurt during camp, McKinney was thrust into the starting role for game one at SEMO, playing a position he barely knew.
"I was thrown into the fire," he said. "Every night I was in my room studying playbooks."
"It's a love-hate relationship," he said of the dangerous job of fielding punts. "It gives me a chance to show off what I can do in the open field and it's another thing on my resume."
McKinney felt he was only scratching the surface of his potential and re-doubled his efforts to improve during the off-season.
"Over the winter, I spent a lot of time going over the plays that I didn't understand and working by myself," he said. "I knew I had to do certain things better in certain situations to get open."
He continued, "last year, I was thinking a lot. Now, when I get on the field, I know not only what I have to do, but I know what the guy next to me has to do."
Last spring, McKinney was the team's most explosive offensive weapon, making big plays on a routine basis.
Only a sophomore, McKinney clearly has pro football on his mind.
"Versatility can keep you on the roster in the NFL," he said. "If I can run the ball, catch the ball, punt return, kick return, play cornerback at times, I want to show them I can do that."
It was humid out at the practice field today from the recent rains, and the field actually had some muddy spots. Offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer patched up the divots after practice. At least the temperature was normal for this time of year, and it looks like the weather will be decent for the next week or so.
You have to be careful not to over-analyze the first four days of camp when the team is in helmets and shorts and there's no live contact. Still, there were a few moments that stood out in practice. S Carlton Lewis, the Clemson transfer, made a pass break-up when he cut in front of a Matt Vincent pass intended for TE Adam Fuehne. Lewis covered a lot of ground to make the deflection. Later, defensive coordinator Bubba Schweigert praised Lewis for recognizing the offensive formation and getting the defense lined up. It's still early, but Lewis looks like a player. I had hear that true freshman WR Shawn Mitchell was turning heads in summer workouts, and I could see why today. Not only does he have impressive straight-line speed, but he dazzled with his footwork and left defenders in the dust on a couple of deep routes when the WRs went one-on-one versus the CBs. RB Steve Strother is a small target at 5-foot-8, but he showed reliable hands on pass routes today. During 11-on-11 Team, QB Kory Faulkner had the best two throws of the session. He hit WR Luke Standiford on a 20-yard seam route and completed a deep flag to John Lantz. There are three kickers in camp and incumbent Jackson MacLachlan appears to have the early edge. His leg strength is dramatically better. Last year, his range was 40-yards tops. Today he cleared 40 yards into the wind easily. Confidence in his leg strength should help his accuracy on the shorter field goals that were a problem for him last year. Freshman K Austin Johnson has promise. He showed good leg strength and has a smooth stroke.
Some personnel updates. The first major injury was announced -- starting G Jessy McMullin will have back surgery and is out indefinitely. Fifth-year senior Eric Bergman took first-team reps at right guard today for McMullin. Faulkner wore a brace on his left knee, but worked with the ones. QB A.J. Hill ran with the second team, while Matt Vincent was the third QB. Paul McIntosh did not dress. A couple players were held out with minor injuries and one player had a heat-related issue.