On the Tuesday before the first game of the 2019 season, Alabama's dynastic defense lost its leader and signal-caller Dylan Moses to a knee injury. The Crimson Tide was already dealing with another serious injury to senior Joshua McMillon, another stout linebacker.
The coaching staff then turned to Xavier McKinney, a defensive back, to lead the defense.
"He had to be everything to everybody," Alabama radio analyst and former Crimson Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson recalled on "Big Blue Kickoff Live" on Giants.com. "He was the oldest guy. He was the safety that you could still get in the box and align everybody and tell them what to do. He had to do that all while maintaining the safety position, which is pretty important in the Nick Saban defense, which has to come down in the box, be a nickel defender at times, be a free safety depending on times, and also you've got to come down there and be the strong safety to stop the run. So Xavier, to me, is a guy that can do it all."
That's why the Giants drafted him with the 36th overall pick. McKinney was the first of 16 safeties to go off the board, but don't pigeonhole him with that label. He is a "defensive back."
"A secondary guy typically wants interceptions, right, he wants pass breakups. That's sexy. That's what you want," Wilson said. "But last year he was asked to come down and be a more in-the-box, downhill a little bit more because he was needed. He didn't say a word. He just lined up, played football, and was there for the rest of his teammates."
McKinney, 21, was a first-team All-SEC selection in 2019 as he 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.
Not bad for a guy who ran the 40-yard dash in the 4.6s at the NFL Scouting Combine. Cramps or no cramps, what he did with the pads on over the fall was more important than what he did in track gear in the middle of winter.
"Never once was [speed] an issue," Wilson said. "I've watched every snap the past two years doing color for our radio networks. I've seen it all, and never once have we ever said, 'Xavier was a step behind' or 'Just half a step and he would have made that play.' The combine is great, there's a lot of good things that come out of it, but the 4.6 speed to me never has been a question. If he is a half a step slow in the 40 time, he makes it up with all the intangibles that he has and he has shown."
Wilson said what separates McKinney is his ability to understand offenses and know how they are trying to attack, whether it's deep or over the middle of field. He doesn't just line up and play man-to-man coverage; he understands route concepts.
"It's knowing what's going on and being able to process that fast enough to go make the plays," said Wilson, who spent time with three NFL teams between 2009-13 after his Alabama playing days. "A lot of the interceptions we saw was anticipation, it was being at the right spot at the right time, just seeing it on film and being able to diagnose that and then react quick enough to make a play. That's a pretty hard thing to do, right? You see this on tape all week long … boom, here it is third-and-five. To be able to go make that play, Xavier has got that football IQ to be able to go do that."
It didn't happen overnight, either.
At the combine, McKinney admitted that his freshman 2017 season was a little rough and he didn't think Saban really liked him.
Nevertheless, McKinney 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. In all, he played in 41 career games with 28 starts, recording 176 tackles (13 TFL), six sacks, five forced fumbles, 20 pass breakups and five interceptions.
By the end, Saban trusted McKinney as much as anyone on the field.
"Nowadays when you're recruited out of high school, I think there is one of two ways you can go," Wilson said. "You can either come in and say, 'Hey, I'm a four-, five-star guy, I need to be playing immediately or I should be playing immediately.' Or, 'Hey, I'm a four- or five-star guy, I'm amongst everybody else that's four- and five-star, top-rated guys in the country. Let me come in here and learn as much as I can and then when I get my chance, I'll be ready.' And I think Xavier was just that."
The most underrated aspect of McKinney's game, Wilson said, is his tackling ability on the perimeter. That will be particularly useful in today's NFL, where offenses rely on quick throws, run-pass options, and slants to find open space.
"At defensive back, you've got to be a tackler," Wilson said. "You've got to be able to wrap up, middle of the field, one-on-one, not waiting for your buddies to come help you out. I think Xavier can do that. … This is a first-round guy. I know a lot of people had him mid-first round, and I think he is a steal in the second round for the Giants."
Wilson added, "He's not a loud-talker guy, but I did love what he said pre-draft. He was like, 'You know what, just turn on my tape. I think I'm the best safety.' And to me, it wasn't a cocky or arrogant statement. It was like, 'I've done everything I can; ya'll just go watch my product.' He stood behind it. To me, that says a lot about him. He's got confidence, and it's because he can back it up."
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