(Editor's Note: This piece was written prior to the news of J.J. Watt's latest injury and pending IR designation.)
As TexansTakeaway pointed out Monday, Benardrick McKinney was the number one positive from Houston’s Thursday night game against the New England Patriots. If the rest of the active roster and coaching staff had played at the level McKinney did, the score would have been the reverse of what it was.
When the Texans’ all-time best inside linebacker Brian Cushing went down in the first series of the 2016 season, many thought that was going to be big trouble for the Houston defense. However, Benardrick McKinney slid over into Cushing’s role as the quarterback of the defense and has been doing his best to make sure no one notices Cushing is out.
Much like fellow linebacker Whitney Mercilus, Benardrick has a history of rising to the occasion.
In high school, McKinney played quarterback, linebacker and even punted. As a QB, he gained 2,032 yards and scored 22 touchdowns in his senior year, while also nailing 66 tackles and earning the honor of being elected to the Mississippi high school all-star game following the season. He became the first player from his school to land in the SEC since 2001 when he signed with the Mississippi State Bulldogs in 2011.
McKinney would go on to rake in all sorts of honors in Starkville:
- 2014 First Team All-American: ESPN, FWAA, Phil Steele, Sports Illustrated
- 2014 Second Team All-American: Associated Press, Sporting News, Walter Camp
- 2014 First Team All-SEC: Coaches
- 2014 Second Team All-SEC: Associated Press
- 2014 Bednarik Award Semifinalist
- 2014 Butkus Award Semifinalist
- 2014 Lombardi Award Semifinalist
Many projected McKinney to go in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft when he declared his eligibility after his junior year at Mississippi. Texans general manager Rick Smith was more than happy to pick McKinney when he fell to the Texans in the second round in 2015. In fact, the Texans liked McKinney so much that they uncharacteristically traded up to get him with the 43rd overall pick in the draft.
"As the second round began to unfold," Smith explained to the press after the trade and resulting pick, "Benardrick (McKinney) was sitting there and it was pretty clear that he was the highest rated guy left on the board. We felt like we needed to get aggressive. (Texans Head Coach) Bill (O’Brien) will talk about what we think about him as a player, but really excited about him. It was pretty clear that he was the guy that was still there, so we started making some calls and we were able to obviously go up and make that trade with Cleveland."
Later in the same press conference, O’Brien added his thoughts.
"He’s got good size, 6-4 and 250 (pounds), good length, an active player, a tough player. A guy that can do a few different things within our defensive scheme, so we’re very excited about having him on board. We were at Mississippi State a few weeks ago and had a chance to sit down with their coaching staff and they raved about him also."
The Houston leadership’s faith in McKinney has been rewarded, slowly but surely. For McKinney to stand out in a front seven that features Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, Brian Cushing, Vince Wilfork and J.J. Watt is really saying something.
Against the Patriots, when everything was falling apart around him, McKinney rose to the occasion, posting six solo tackles, 10 assists and a sack (his second in two weeks). The needle for this guy is definitely pointing up.
With the AFC South division rival Tennessee Titans coming to town this weekend with their solid running game, McKinney will be tested once more. While New England isn’t known for a spectacular running game, the Titans’ running game features DeMarco Murray, who is averaging a monster 6.0 yards per carry. As a unit, they rank 8th in the league in rushing, often when playing from behind (a scenario that can skew rushing yards – see New England at #1, which has played with the lead most of the season).
If McKinney is to cement his place anchoring the center of the Houston defense, this Sunday is his opportunity to do so. And, if he can, the Titans are going to head back to Tennessee knowing the Texans are the real leaders of the AFC South.
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