AUBURN, Ala. — Ellis Johnson rarely talks in coach-speak. When there's been a breakdown defensively or one of his players hasn't lived up to his own expectations, he'll say it. Not that he does it in a vindictive way — Auburn's defensive coordinator is just being honest.
As spring practice was wrapping up in April, Johnson once again stated his mind: In his opinion, Cassanova McKinzy hadn't had "a very good spring." It wasn't due to any on-field mistakes. Quite the opposite. Due to a combination of injuries — a nagging hip and a bruised tailbone — hadn't really seen the field all that much in the first place. For nearly half of the spring McKinzy was less than 100 percent. The Tigers had 15 practices during the spring; in seven of them, McKinzy either couldn't go full speed or didn't participate at all.
But now that fall camp is in full swing, the junior believes he's finally starting to get into a rhythm. And for that, he credits the work he put in this summer.
"In the offseason, I started calling just random linebacker meetings, just getting in and watching film on our own," McKinzy said. " ... I've been more vocal, trying to play with more emotion. Just being the eyes of Coach Johnson when he’s not around."
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McKinzy finding his voice was nearly as important to Johnson as any on-field reps.
How can a middle linebacker — who's tasked with making every call for the defense in Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme — flourish when he doesn't talk? That's part of the reason McKinzy is just now entering his first season in the middle. When Johnson came on board as Gus Malzahn's defensive coordinator, he immediately pegged McKinzy as his future Mike linebacker.
Only one problem: He wasn't vocal enough.
So Johnson elected to put Kris Frost in the middle (along with then-senior Jake Holland) last season while McKinzy played the weakside. The move couldn't have gone any better, as McKinzy notched a team-high 75 tackles last season.
This spring, Johnson finally put his original plan in motion: McKinzy would shift back to the middle while Frost would go to the weakside. And while McKinzy's spring didn't go the way he had hoped thanks to the nagging injuries, Johnson has no complaints with the Birmingham, Ala., native's play since preseason camp opened last week.
"He's been good — he's been really good," the coach said. "He's had complete control of our front, making all those decisions. We've had absolutely no problems."
McKinzy agreed. Being the vocal leader of the defense feels natural now.
"I like it. I like being in control of the defense," he said. "I like making calls and changing calls and being hands-on with the defensive line. I feel like it was a pretty good move. Kris is more the cover guy and I like the physical part of people running the ball. I feel like it was a great move. "
Of all the linebackers on the roster, Johnson said none have a "greater skill-set" than McKinzy.
To fully harness that ability, however, he still needs to develop a perpetual, all-out tenacity.
"He (has to) be an every down player and bring it full speed every day, meetings, drills, study, performance on the field, practicing — everything he does, he's got to learn to keep his foot on the pedal and go full speed every play," Johnson said.
If that happens, McKinzy thinks his production this fall will put last season to shame.
"A lot of people thought last year was the breakout year for me, but I feel like it was a real small measure," he said. "I hold myself to very high expectations."