Through the better part of three decades as a collegiate head coach, Steve Spurrier has instructed his share of talented wide receivers.
From his 12-year tenure at Florida and on through his current post at South Carolina, Spurrier has worked with a number of NFL-caliber wide outs in the Southeastern Conference — thirteen-year NFL veteran Ike Hilliard, Minnesota Vikings 2007 draft pick Sidney Rice and first-year Bronco Jabar Gaffney are a few names that come to mind.
Yet, Spurrier has labeled a different individual as the “best wide receiver I’ve ever coached.” The ol’ ball coach has given that distinct honor to Broncos fifth round draft pick Kenny McKinley.
“I really appreciate Coach Spurrier and look up to him. Those comments coming from him, with all the people that he has coached, is a big statement,” McKinley said at his post-draft press conference. “When I heard that he said that it really got to me because he got me to where I am today coming from playing QB in high school to being a pretty good receiver playing in the NFL for the Denver Broncos.”
That’s right, McKinley was a dual-threat quarterback — not a wide receiver — during his high school days in Austell, Ga. He threw for nearly 1,500 yards and rushed for another 750 as a senior at South Cobb High School.
Still, McKinley was unsure of what his role would be at the collegiate level. Poised with great athleticism and speed, the University of Georgia extended an offer his way to play cornerback. Eventually, he committed to South Carolina despite being unsure of how he would fit in with the Gamecocks.
That all changed, however, when Spurrier was hired as head coach before his freshman year. Spurrier, well-known for his creative offensive mind, quickly found McKinley a spot on the field suited for his game — at receiver.
The position fit McKinley like a glove. In four seasons with the Gamecocks, the 6-0, 189-pound wideout set school records for receptions with 207 and receiving yards with 2,781, surpassing marks set by South Carolina alum Sterling Sharpe. Those numbers put him in elite company in SEC history, too. The Mableton, Ga. native is one of only five players in league history with over 200 career receptions and is one of only 12 players in conference annals to amass more than 2,700 receiving yards.
In search of a versatile receiver to fit Head Coach Josh McDaniels’ offensive scheme, Broncos brass traded up eight spots in April’s draft to nab McKinley in the fifth round. If McKinley’s transition to the NFL is anywhere close to his jump from high school to the college game, the Broncos will have a draft-day steal on their hands.
“He can really run and he’s got very good hands,” McDaniels said. “He’s a guy that can play more than one spot in the receiver alignments. Adding a player that has sub 4.4 speed, I think anytime you add a skill player with that kind of speed, it’s a good thing and you’ve gotten faster.”
McKinley believes playing against other NFL-ready talent in a top-notch conference such as the SEC helped him prepare for the pro game.
“I always say there are only two leagues — the NFL and the SEC,” McKinley joked.
Like many of his rookie teammates, McKinley has received a crash course on NFL life during three months of offseason workouts at Dove Valley. But he credits his wide receiver counterparts for easing his learning curve.
From the moment he arrived at team headquarters, McKinley has formed a bond with another Spurrier product, Gaffney. The two frequently reminisce about playing for Spurrier, but Gaffney — who played in McDaniels’ offensive system in New England — also is a convenient outlet for McKinley when he has a question pertaining to the playbook. McKinley is leaning on his other receiving counterparts, too. Veteran Brandon Stokley is always around to give him route running tips. If he has a broad question related to the shift from college to the professional ranks, McKinley looks for guidance from Eddie Royal, who went through the same changeover as a rookie last season.
All those conversations have made him more at ease with his new surroundings.
“I feel 85 percent better,” McKinley said of how much more comfortable he is now compared to before the start of the team’s first minicamp. “When I first got here, I didn’t know what to expect or know any of the plays or anything. Now I’ve got a pretty good grasp of the offense.”
With OTAs behind them, players have a month to themselves until the start of training camp. McKinley plans to use that time to dedicate himself to strength and conditioning coach Rich Tuten’s workout regimen on a daily basis — all in hopes of making a lasting impression on the coaching staff when the Broncos get down to business in late July.
“I think training camp is when you separate yourself from other guys on the team,” McKinley said. “I’m going to go out there and do my best, do whatever I can do to contribute to the team so I can get (on the field) this season.”
– Zach Eisendrath, DenverBroncos.com