January 7, 2014 11:21:52 AM
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen isn't putting much stock into online reports sophomore linebacker Benardrick McKinney will enter the NFL draft.
In a text message New Year's Day to the The Dispatch, Mullen said he "had serious doubts" McKinney has made that decision. A few online publications, citing unnamed sources, reported on Twitter the sophomore linebacker would leave school early and declare himself eligible for the draft. College underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to declare for the draft.
When The Dispatch asked McKinney about his draft intentions at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn., he declined to get specific. MSU defeated Conference USA champion Rice 44-7 on Dec. 31, 2013.
"The NFL is a dream of mine, and that sounds good and all, but I really think I need to improve as a football player," McKinney said Dec. 29.
McKinney, MSU's leading tackler this season, is eligible to turn professional because he redshirted his first year at MSU, so he would be three years removed from his high school graduation. The other redshirt sophomore to declare for the draft is Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
It is unclear whether McKinney filed evaluation paperwork with the NFL draft advisory committee to gauge his stock in the draft. The committee will evaluate a player's prospects and return the information to the player. It also will provide a likely round the player would get drafted.
"What we do is we wait, we get the paperwork back, we sit down with the players and families and try to give them the best advice possible," Mullen said in 2012 when asked about the process for his underclassmen. "Look at (former MSU cornerback and second-round NFL draft pick) Johnthan Banks. He and I spent a lot of time talking about that, had the opportunity to come back, and he's done something special."
McKinney led the team in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks from his middle linebacker position. In the preseason, Southeastern Conference coaches named McKinney a third-team All-SEC pick.
MSU defensive coordinator Geoff Collins credited McKinney with helping the defense mature, especially in victories against Arkansas and Ole Miss to end the regular season and help the team become bowl eligible.
"That's when it began to turn because guys like Benardrick McKinney knew what I wanted and were already making the calls and lining guys up properly," Collins said. "From the Texas A&M game on, I'd say it was on McKinney and the other veterans just to get us in the right spot because they were going so fast. When those guys speak, I don't have to."
If McKinney returns for his junior season, MSU is expected to have eight starters back on defense. The Bulldogs are projected to lose linebacker Deonte Skinner, defensive lineman Kaleb Eulls, and safety Nickoe Whitley to graduation.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.