July 26, 2014 10:29:33 PM
STARKVILLE -- Flying under the radar is nothing new to Benardrick McKinney.
A two-star recruit from Rosa Fort High School in Tunica, McKinney had the size, speed, and athletic ability to play at any Division I school.
But when only one came calling, McKinney took it in stride.
As McKinney enters his junior season at Mississippi State three years later, it's less than surprising he lets the lack of recognition slide without much worry.
That's what he did last week at the Southeastern Conference Media Days after he was named a second-team performer on the media's preseason All-SEC team.
"We don't really worry about recognition. We just go out there and play the game," said McKinney, who is among the top underclassmen projected for the 2015 NFL draft. "When the lights come on, that's what we're worried about. We're a psycho defense, and it's up to us to earn that recognition this year."
While the media's snub of McKinney for first-team honors is an individual case, the linebacker's low profile entering this season is emblematic of a MSU defense that could be among the SEC's best.
When fall practice begins this week, eight starters return from a unit that finished in the top five in the SEC in scoring defense, rush defense, pass defense, and total defense. Seven more players with starting experience also return.
The defense will be key to MSU's hopes of climbing into the upper echelon of the conference. It's a group that takes on the personality of McKinney, a physical and emotional leader.
"I think he plays with an unbelievable chip on his shoulder," MSU coach Dan Mullen said. "I think he was a two-star recruit in his school, wasn't really recruited at all. We saw him (and) knew he was a guy that had tremendous ability with growth potential.
"He's a great leader. He is a vocal, emotional leader of the defense. On top of that, an unbelievable trait of him is his unselfishness. He is a guy that wants to do whatever it takes for the team to win. He's not afraid."
McKinney's development from little-known prospect to All-America candidate has been key for a defense that has plenty of star potential. There's highly touted sophomore defensive tackle Chris Jones up front. Jones, a 6-foot-5, 290-pound specimen, lived up to his five-star billing as a freshman. Jones is one of two players on the defense projected to be a first-round pick. ESPN.com lists the Houston High product as one of the top 10 prospects for the 2016 NFL draft. The other player? McKinney, who is rated as the No. 2 underclassman available for the 2015 draft.
In the backfield, MSU features players like cornerback Taveze Calhoun, a Morton product named by ESPN analyst Chris Lowe as the SEC's second-best cornerback, and former East Mississippi Community College All-American Justin Cox, who will move from cornerback to safety. Calhoun had three interceptions a year ago, while Cox added one, a highlight-reel play in the Egg Bowl.
Then there's McKinney, who Lowe picked as the league's best linebacker. McKinney enters his junior campaign with 172 tackles, which included 102 in his freshman campaign.
For the first time in Mullen's tenure, the MSU defense ranked in the top five in all four major defensive categories -- total defense, rush defense, pass defense, and scoring defense -- in 2013. MSU ranked that high despite a pair of 50-point explosions (at home against LSU and at Texas A&M). After a 20-7 loss to Alabama, MSU allowed 13 points per game in its 3-1 finish. MSU held the Ole Miss offense out of the end zone in the Egg Bowl and gave up a season-low 145 yards to Conference USA champion Rice in the Liberty Bowl.
The finish has fueled high expectations for the Bulldogs this year.
"I think after the last two games, going into that bowl game, that team had so much confidence because they realized we can play great offense, defense, we've learned how to go in, and we finished the bowl game the right way," Mullen said. "I think that's why there's so much excitement within our program to get this season started because I think our guys believe in themselves and believe they can make special things happen."
McKinney and his teammates also recognize the impact made by first-year defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, who helped the defense move from eighth in total defense in the SEC in 2012 to fourth in the same category in 2013.
"He expects a lot out of you, but he puts you in position to make plays," McKinney said of Collins at SEC Media Days. "He wants us to be that psycho defense, to get to the ball and make plays."
Jay Hughes noticed the change in MSU's defense.
Sidelined by a ruptured Achilles that occurred on the Bulldogs' sixth play of the season, Hughes still went to practice, still attended film sessions, still stood beside his teammates through every high and low.
"Life is full of ups and downs, I just chalk my injury up as a down and move on," said Hughes, a senior safety from Hattiesburg with 44 tackles. "By the end of the season, we were playing great defense. I wanted to be out there, but now I see the depth developed. This year, if I come out of the game, then we'll have Justin Cox and Deonta Evans out there, or Kendrick Market. No matter who is out there defensively, I don't think there's a dropoff anymore."
While only McKinney and Jones, who ended up with a team-high 10 quarterback hurries as a freshman, made the cut for the media's preseason All-SEC team, other analysts have noticed a defense that enters the season as the league's most experienced unit.
"I look at Mississippi State, and they look like an NFL defense," ESPN College Football analyst Jesse Palmer said. "When you look at their size, their speed, and you consider they have high-end NFL talent like Benardrick McKinney and Chris Jones, this is a defense that could make a statement in the SEC this year."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat