CATEGORY: FOC College Football

AUTHOR: PARRIS

HED:McKinley has look of a successful back

By Parrish Alford

Daily Journal

STARKVILLE For Dennis McKinley, the thrill is in the eyes.

That's where the son of an ex-logger finds confirmation of a job well done.

Of course, there are the ears, too. And don't forget the touch.

McKinley, a devastating lead blocker for Mississippi State tailback James Johnson, can actually feel Johnson rushing past.

"You can feel him run by you, and you can hear him go," McKinley said. "But when you see the defenders eyes when you watch the defender follow him with his eyes you know he got by the block."

After a year of learning the system, Johnson has gotten by blocks with incredible efficiency this season. His career-high 237 yards in State's 26-14 win over Alabama Saturday marked his second consecutive 200-plus game.

McKinley has been a major factor in the success. The big fullback actually changed his blocking style to better suit Johnson.

"I tried to block standing up last year. This year I try to cut the legs. If I can cut the guy down, J.J. can see a lot better," McKinley said.

With 1,277 yards in nine games, Johnson is State's single season rushing leader with two games to go.

The Bulldogs with their Southeastern Conference fate in their hands just like last year - take on No. 9 Arkansas in a regionally televised game at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.

Changing 1997's outcome could depend on the space McKinley and others provide for Johnson.

"He's reading our blocks a lot better than he was last year," McKinley said. "I think he's gotten used to us."

McKinley is by no means the only

party in Johnson's security service. But he is the most visible. It's McKinley in front when Johnson's just taken the pitch on the toss sweep.

Of course Johnson gets the glory. That's the way of the game. But blockers take pride when backs dominate the way Johnson has this season.

"On a scale of 1-10 he's a 9 1/2," says MSU coach Jackie Sherrill of McKinley.

His weakness?

"He isn't 260 pounds."

No, McKinley stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 240. Still, he opens holes and is more than adequate running the football.

He's run for 121 yards and two touchdowns this year and has 263 career yards.

It was McKinley who was stopped on a 1-yard dive on fourth-and-goal against Alabama.

"I scored. They just didn't give it to me," he said.

Running glory has always been a step beyond McKinley's reach, even at Weir High School as a senior when he rushed for 1,503 yards on a state champion team.

"I've never been the star or the high-profile player," McKinley said. "I've always been the blocker. It's what I like to do."

Blocking allows McKinley's true competitive nature to shine through.

It's similar to when McKinley, beginning at age 15, went one-on-one with downed trees driving a skidder for his father's logging company.

"We had to get up early," he remembered fondly. "We had to be out in the woods at 5:30, getting stung by bees and chased by snakes."

All of which makes leveling ends and linebackers seem easy.

"He's just one of those old country loggers who has natural strength from being in the woods and cutting trees down," Sherrill said.

His father has since passed the business on to his older brother, and McKinley whose younger brother Alvin is a defensive tackle at MSU is several years removed from his time as a logger.

Such employment often teaches lessons beneficial in other walks of life. Such as, sometimes work hurts.

Blocking these days has been more painful for McKinley, who tore ligaments in his thumb during the LSU game. He has worn a cast since and will wear it the rest of the year.

"He had his hand operated on, and he was playing the next week," Sherrill said. "Some people have a higher threshold of pain than others."

McKinley remains very much at home in the outdoors and takes pride in teaching his friend the star tailback all about fishing when the two have rare free time. Trips to the quiet, private lakes of a football staff member are common.

"I always out-fish him," McKinley says smiling.

The rushing, however, he leaves to Johnson.

"If it wasn't for Dennis I wouldn't be where I am today," Johnson said. "Running the ball just doesn't matter to Dennis. He wants to block for me and me to get the yards. He's a different breed of person ... a very good person.

"He's just like Randy (Thomas) and the rest of the line. They want to see me do good. We're together."

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