MISSOULA — Of all the cornerbacks in the NFL, Montana cornerback Ryan McKinley looks up to three of them.
Darrelle Revis. Patrick Peterson. Trumaine Johnson.
Revis because, well, he’s the GOAT. Peterson because McKinley’s “an Arizona boy.” And Johnson because McKinley’s “had to look at his film.”
“He’s been in the same position that I’ve been in,” McKinley said of Johnson, who played cornerback for Montana from 2008-11.
Johnson exploded during his senior year and was named an FCS All-American for the second consecutive season after having 54 tackles, two interceptions, 12 passes defended and 14 pass breakups.
McKinley hauled in two interceptions, defended six passes, made four pass breakups and had 24 tackles in his junior season.
This season for McKinley, expect to see flashes reminiscent of Johnson. Especially since they’re similar in stature and wear the same number.
“I know for a fact Ryan's gonna have a breakout year this year,” defensive coordinator Jason Semore said. “He's gonna be the best corner in the Big Sky, no doubt about that.”
Cornerbacks coach JB Hall knows his senior is ready to shine this season too.
“He’s a technician,” Hall said. “He really, really takes control of his feet, of his eyes, of his hips. He loves to play man coverage so he’s got the right attitude to get out there and compete at any time of the day, wherever we play, whether it be practice or gameday Saturday, the guy’s a competitor.”
McKinley’s senior leadership is well needed this season, as he’s the only upperclassman among the cornerbacks. Markell Sanders, a junior, is the only other player in the room who isn’t a freshman.
McKinley’s the “old guy” now and that’s a big motivator for him.
“It’s a younger group than usual, (so I) set the example for them every single day,” McKinley said. “We preach on dependency. You want guys to depend on you and you want to depend on them. My teammates are very huge motivating factors and everything.”
For the young guys, McKinley’s a solid example of someone to look up to.
His freshman season, back in 2013, he thought he was going to play immediately, but that didn’t happen.
“Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t know any better,” McKinley said. “I had the expectation of wanting to play right away and I had to really put a damper on that. (I) really had to be patient and continue to grind. Once I finally got my chance, I seized it and took an opportunity for it. Now I’m here. It’s a great thing.”
Even though McKinley’s confident, he’s not the most talkative person around.
“He’s definitely a leader by actions,” Hall said. “He’s not really vocal, but that’s OK. That’s something you want with a senior leader. He doesn’t need to tell his story or get people going. He just does it by his actions, comes out and works every day hard.”
Safeties coach Shann Schillinger echoed Hall.
“He doesn’t say a lot, but he comes out and does his job every day,” Schillinger said. “He’s a great role model for our young guys to watch and learn from. I’m excited about Ryan’s future in this program and I think he has a chance to go on to the next level and do something really well.”
McKinley’s devoted work ethic is how he’s gotten to where he is today in terms of his development over time.
“Ryan's a guy that's developed in every way through his time here,” Semore said. “He's always had physical tools. He's probably one of the most gifted guys on our team physically. He has come a long way in terms of his mental development, his development as a teammate, his mature approach to the game, all those things.
“It's huge for that room, because we're so young in that room. We have a lot of youth in that room. For those guys to see how Ryan operates every day as an example of what they should be, means a lot to the team and to the secondary in general.”
So far this fall camp, McKinley’s shown that he can be consistent. And that consistency is feeding into his confidence.
“He’s probably the most confident young man that we have on the team,” Semore said. “We're not making the same corrections over and over again, whether it's his feet or it's his eyes or it's his body language, things like that. There's been days at practice where we haven't coached Ryan McKinley at all because he's doing exactly what we want him to do every single day.
“When you're coaching DBs, your confidence is in your technique. Everybody always talks about you have to be confident to play corner, well, you're not gonna be a confident corner unless you're comfortable with your technique. He's grown in that way, I think consistency's the key word for him. That's what he's putting on tape and that's what he's displaying, which makes me think that he's gonna have a heck of a season."