Xavier McKinney develops mentally in second season


By Grant Nicholls

Cody Estremera, Sports Editor

SAN JOSE, Calif.— Alabama’s 2017 recruiting class was stacked with talent. Of the 29 players in the class, 11 are full time starters, while two others are in heavy rotation in their designated positions.

While the sophomores on offense get a lot of credit for Alabama’s 14-0 season, and rightfully so, two sophomores have made a name for themselves on defense. First is Dylan Moses, who began starting at the end of the 2017 season and leads the team in tackles. The other is Xavier McKinney.

The story has been told several times: Alabama loses its entire secondary to the NFL draft or graduation and has barely any starting experience. McKinney, who would enter games on defense once Alabama built a large lead, was one of those question marks entering the season.

Usually losing six experienced players is devastating, especially in the back of the defense, but the players still on roster took full advantage of the opportunity.

“These young men have been able to use this to their advantage making more reps and every single rep at practice valuable to them and this is an opportunity for us to get better and this is an opportunity for us to get better at today’s practice,” defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi said.

Since taking over the starting safety spot, McKinney has excelled. He’s currently fourth on the team in tackles (66), tied for second in interceptions (two) and broke up nine passes, which is just one shy of the team high.

“He’s doing what he got to do,” middle linebacker Dylan Moses said. “He’s balling, you know what I’m saying. That just shows his growth from last year to this year. He really did put in a lot of work over the summer, throughout fall camp. Feel like everything he’s getting right now, he deserves it.”

Attacking the Alabama secondary was a focus for teams early in the year, but McKinney and fellow starting safety Deionte Thompson have shown range that makes it tougher for teams to consistently attack downfield.

“He can get sideline to sideline just like I can,” Thompson said. “I feel like that’s what I think makes us a valuable duo in the SEC. You can’t test us how you want to because we can make the plays on the ball and come out of the box and tackle.”

The two safeties have 15 breakups this season, five of which came in the Orange Bowl.

The former four-star prospect always had the physical tools to play in the secondary in college, graduating high school at 6-foot-1 and 192 pounds. The leap that he took that put him in the starting lineup was the maturation process and learning the mental side of the game better.

“He’s grown each and every day,” Thompson said. “I feel like that’s hard for a player to do at his age, 19. He’s gotten better each and every week. He’s grown as a leader. He’s more vocal and I’m proud of him. I’m very thankful that he’s playing on the other side of me, because he makes my job a lot easier.”

Players that put in extra work usually succeed, and McKinney has made that conscience decision to put in the work outside the mandatory.

“He’s an individual when we break from a staff meeting you always see him, whether he’s sitting alone or studying the film he’s got a list of questions to ask, what can I do to get better,” Lupoi said.