BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. — The raw numbers don’t come close to an accurate retelling Cassanova McKinzy’s 2012 season.
A true freshman, he played in eight games and made two starts. In that time on the field, he made 23 tackles and forced a fumble. And McKinzy did this, he admitted, playing in a position that didn’t suit him.
A star at outside linebacker at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Ala., then-Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had other ideas for McKinzy, deciding to shift him to middle linebacker. Forced to deal with making the calls for the defense negated his ability to simply react to the play, which McKinzy believes is his best attribute.
“You’ve got to make the call, make sure all the linemen are right and then you have to do your assignment,” he said. “Then you have to make all the checks. This is SEC football; you have to make a lot of checks. Communicating with the D-linemen was the hardest part.”
McKinzy also bulked up to 254 pounds last year, the highest weight of his playing career, believing it was required if he wanted to be able to compete in the SEC.
But when new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson arrived, weight was lifted off McKinzy’s shoulders, both literally and figuratively.
Johnson told him to cut some pounds from his frame: McKinzy was moving back to the weakside.
“I felt like I had to drop weight so I can run with the receivers since I wasn’t playing middle linebacker anymore,” he said, noting he now tips the scales at 241 pounds. “I transferred to Will, so I had to cover a little bit more.”
He couldn’t have been more pleased with the switch, finally back at a spot where he feels comfortable.
“I like it because I get a chance to show what I really can do besides playing the box and stopping the run,” he said. “It gives me an opportunity to show everything I can do.”
And during fall camp, Johnson said the sophomore did just that.
“His change of direction — redirect on counters, coming out of your break when you drop in zone and those types of things, just acceleration and explosion to the point of attack — he’s gotten better and he can practice longer at a high tempo,” Johnson said. “He would not finish a practice (in the spring) and I felt like he was too heavy and out of shape.”
McKinzy isn’t just playing faster since he’s lighter than last year. He said it’s also due to Johnson’s 4-2-5 system, which is far less complicated than the 4-3 scheme VanGorder used.
“It’s a big difference,” he said. “The only thing I’ve got to worry about is who I’m playing with — who is on my left , who is on my right, what my defensive line is doing in front of me. I feel more free.”
As the Tigers continue to prepare for the season opener against Washington State, McKinzy said the defense has been practicing out of both their base formation and a dime package. Against a team as pass-heavy as the Cougars, having an effective dime formation is integral.
McKinzy wasn’t sure which package the Tigers would use most often.
“It’s been a little bit more dime just in case,” he said. “We’ve got certain schemes we want to have base on the field because the size of the linebackers, the difference between a dime back, they’re much faster than an outside linebacker. We’ve just been working real hard on both because we don’t know what they can do.”
But McKinzy at least has a bit of an idea of the things that will occur on the field. He has that playing time last season to thank for it, after all.
Even if it came at a position that was an ill fit for him.
“By me playing the little time I played (last year), I feel like it did a lot for this year playing SEC games,” he said. “Coaches had been saving me for those out-of-conference games. They always put me in to stop the run. I appreciate what they did last year by giving me a chance when they came. “