August 18, 2014 1:21:09 PM
STARKVILLE -- When asked where the Mississippi State football team's defense will turn for about leadership this season, junior quarterback Dak Prescott didn't hesitate.
"Benardrick (McKinney) is a great leader, great player," Prescott said. "Seeing him on the other side of the ball, I know he has the defense going, and it's hard for me not to get this offense going. We just feed off each other."
Such is McKinney's stature in the middle of MSU's defense. Entering his fourth year on campus and his junior season on the field, McKinney, a 6-foot-4 middle linebacker from Tunica Rosa Fort High School, has emerged as the heart and soul of the defense. A former two-star prospect with only one Southeastern Conference scholarship offer out of high school, all McKinney has done since he arrived in Starkville is lead MSU in tackles twice, collect preseason and postseason All-SEC nominations, and help lead a defense that finished fourth in the conference a season ago.
Listed by ESPN.com as the No. 2 underclassman eligible for the 2015 NFL draft, McKinney posted a team-best 71 tackles in 2013 after making 102 stops as a redshirt freshman in 2012.
As he leads his team into this season, McKinney believes the sky is the limit.
"We are aspiring to go to Atlanta (site of the Southeastern Conference Championship Game)," McKinney said. "During the offseason and summer, we have been working very hard and striving to be the best. Dak (Prescott) is leading the offense. Guys like Beniquez (Brown) and I are trying to lead the defense to be what we are supposed to be in order to compete at a high level."
But as he enters his junior season, the most relevant question surrounding McKinney -- and the rest of the MSU linebackers -- could be simple: Who's the next McKinney?
Deep and talented at linebacker, MSU has several candidates to make an impact alongside McKinney -- and to inherit his status as the team's defensive leader once he's gone.
Brown is a good place to start. At 6-1, 235 pounds, the Florence, Alabama, product finished fourth among MSU's linebackers in tackles (39) despite starting three games as a redshirt freshman. He and fellow redshirt sophomore Richie Brown, a 6-2, 235-pounder, represent MSU's future at the position.
"I look at guys like Richie and Beniquez, they have both bought in," McKinney said. "They both have a lot of talent and they are willing to work hard. We like to play what we call a psycho defense. They fit in with that."
Richie Brown finished his redshirt freshman campaign with 38 tackles and an interception.
While McKinney and other Bulldogs, like defensive tackle Chris Jones and Prescott, have received loads of hype and preseason accolades, one of MSU's most important pieces at linebacker hasn't. Flying under the radar for much of his MSU career, former Lawrence County High star Matthew Wells returns for his final season after three solid years as a contributor. A prototypical speed-first linebacker on the outside, Wells started all 13 games a season ago and had 50 tackles. He has 120 for his career, second only to McKinney on the Bulldogs.
"Matt is a guy we all look up to," Beniquez Brown said. "He does all the little things like coverage, film study the right way."
McKinney was a high school quarterback. Wells was a four-star prospect at running back. Richie Brown rushed for 11 touchdowns as a high school senior at fullback, and Beniquez Brown rushed for more than 600 yards at Florence High.
The Bulldogs are big, versatile, and athletic at all three linebacker spots.
"Playing QB in high school helped me, personally," McKinney said. "I know we've got guys on our team who have played all over the field. I think our athletic ability sets us apart."
Redshirt freshman Dezmond Harris could fit right in. At 6-4, 230 pounds, Harris is nearly a dead ringer for McKinney in stature. Like McKinney, he played quarterback in high school. The Bulldogs hope Harris and freshman Gerri Green, another 6-4, 230-pounder, can carry on McKinney's legacy.
"Dez is a great athlete, and he wants to learn," McKinney said. "He's got a great future."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat