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Saban: Judge, McKinney equipped for success

Everything is an adjustment for rookies in the NFL, but this offseason is unprecedented for even the most established veteran who thought he had seen it all.

Xavier McKinney, however, is not your average newcomer. The Giants' second-round draft choice was coached by Alabama's Nick Saban. And partly because of that, his learning curve won't be as steep at a time when facilities remain closed around the league because of the pandemic.

"I think it'll be helpful to him because we do – when I was coach at the Dolphins or Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator in Cleveland – we do a lot of the same stuff here from a coverage standpoint, from a secondary standpoint," the six-time national champion head coach said on the "Giants Huddle" podcast. "So our guys typically make good adjustments. I know a few years ago we had six guys sign NFL contracts and five of them ended up starting as rookies. Even though this will be a transition, I think most of the things that 'X' is going to be exposed to, he's probably done. They might call it something different. I think it'll be an easy transition for him."

The same came be said for another member of the Giants. Coach Joe Judge, who won two national championships under Saban before winning three Super Bowls with Belichick, has said the advantage this year goes to the most prepared teams.

"When Joe was here, he was a young guy, very bright, enthusiastic, great teacher, really good relationships with the players, had lots of leadership qualities about him because of the example that he set and the energy and the enthusiasm he had on a daily basis," Saban said. "And he was really smart. He had a good understanding of football. So no surprise to me that Joe has gotten to this point in his career, and we certainly wish him well. He did a fantastic job here for us."

It is also no shock why Judge, like Saban, was drawn to McKinney.

A first-team All-SEC selection in 2019, the versatile defensive back led Alabama's defense with 95 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and three sacks. He led the SEC with four forced fumbles, tied for second-most in Alabama history. He added three interceptions to go with five pass breakups and five quarterback hurries. He returned one of his interceptions 81 yards for a touchdown.

"I think Xavier has a lot of diversity as a player," Saban said. "He can play man-to-man, he's got pretty good ball judgment, he's a good tackler, he's got a lot of toughness, he's a very instinctive and effective blitzer. He's got some burst and acceleration to come off the edge or blitz up the middle and he's got enough power to take on a blocker if he needs to. So he can do just about all the critical factors in terms of what we look for in a safety here. As he got experience, he was smart enough to be able to play multiple positions."

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McKinney has admitted that his freshman 2017 season was a little rough and he didn't think Saban really liked him.

Nevertheless, he earned a starting role as a sophomore and proceeded to burst onto the scene with 73 tackles, six for loss, three sacks, two interceptions and 10 pass breakups in 15 starts. He was named the Defensive MVP of the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma to help send Alabama to the national title game.

Saban, on the podcast, said McKinney really grasped the importance of communication. When most young players enter the pressure cooker of big-time college football, they tend to worry about only themselves and not making a mistake. McKinney, or "X" as Saban calls him, eventually took the bull by the horns and made the calls in the secondary, which will be helpful at the next level.

"I think the guy's got some dog in him," Saban said. "He's a competitive guy. He's a playmaker. We have a production point system here that we use, and he was always high on that board because he forces fumbles, shows up in the right place, does a good job of executing. He's instinctive, he's a quick reactor, he's got a burst. He can be a knock-back tackler. So he's always been a real playmaker for us and it comes in a lot of different ways, but that's probably his greatest strength – his production."

So why did he slip to the second round?

The reason is because of what teams like the Giants saw in the first round: a deep class for wide receivers and offensive linemen.

Before the Giants chose McKinney at No. 36 overall, eight wide receivers and seven offensive linemen went off the board. That's 15 spots filled on two positions. The Giants got the ball rolling by taking offensive tackle Andrew Thomas, an SEC rival from Georgia, at No. 4. McKinney was the first safety taken.

"Normally, statistically, there are two safeties picked in the first round if you look at historical data," Saban said. "So he should have been a first-round pick based on historical information. And certainly as a player, I think most people had him graded there. I just think sometimes in the draft when there's an overload at another position, whether it's receiver or offensive line or whatever it is, that guys don't always get picked where their grade says.

"So I think this is a really, really good pick for the Giants. Like I tell all our guys here, it's not where you get picked, it's what you do with the opportunity that you have. So don't worry so much about where you get picked, but what you do after you get the opportunity."

It's also about not trying to live up to someone else, whether you are a player or a coach. 

"I don't think it's really fair that when you have former assistants on your staff they get compared to their mentors because we all have different situations," Saban said. "We've had the chance to establish our program, establish our team, get the kind of players that we wanted. When you come into a new situation, you've got to, number one, be yourself, be who you are. Don't try to be somebody else and do things the way you want to do them and get the kind of players that you want. It takes some time to build that. I don't fully know the Giants situation – when we're in college, we don't get to see the NFL games all the time on Sunday because we work – but I know Joe will do a really good job of doing that. But I think that's the most important thing. Don't try to be like somebody else. Be who you are."

Judge isn't the only Alabama connection on the Giants' coaching staff. Running backs coach Burton Burns spent the last two years as assistant athletic director for football at Alabama, where he served as the associate head coach and running backs coach from 2007-17.

He was regarded as one of the nation's finest running backs coach during his 20 seasons as a college assistant. Burns coached two Heisman Trophy winners with the Crimson Tide: Mark Ingram in 2009 and Derrick Henry in 2015, plus finalist Trent Richardson in 2011. Prior to his tenure at Alabama, Burns coached running backs at Clemson for eight seasons and at Tulane for four years.

Now he is coaching Saquon Barkley.

"I think, first of all, Burton is a very fundamental type running backs coach," Saban said. "He has a really good grasp of how players need to press holes, read plays, read blocks, and he's really helped in the development of our players here because of that. Because a lot of guys that are great running backs, especially when we get them, they just get the ball and run with it. They don't understand that you're setting up blocks and you're helping people create holes by how you actually take the correct steps, have the right point of attack relative to aiming point and how that's going to impact and affect your chances to have a successful run on that particular play. Same thing in pass protection. He breaks it down. Players understand it.

"So Burton is just a really good, fundamental coach. He's got a great personality, players love him, they love playing for him and he does a really good job. But he will get on them now and confront and demand that they do things at a certain level, which is always something with some of the high-profile guys here."


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