Scouting Combine Safeties: McKinney Makes Impact
Part 2 of our three-part look at the 26 safeties includes Alabama’s Xavier McKinney, a pair from Notre Dame and a D-II stud. (Underclassmen are noted with an asterisk.)
Kyle Dugger, Lenoir-Rhyne (6-2, 220): Despite playing in just seven games due to injury, Dugger was impactful enough to win the Cliff Harris Award, which is given to the best defensive player in NCAA Division II. As a senior, he had two interceptions and six total passes defensed and a 14.6-yard average and two touchdowns on punt returns. For his career, he intercepted 10 passes, broke up 26 more and forced six fumbles on defense, and averaged 13.9 yards with six touchdowns on punt returns.
His mom played basketball at Fort Valley State and is in the school’s athletics hall of fame. An older brother, Patrick, played professional basketball overseas. How did an early-round draft pick end up in Division II? Because he was a late bloomer who was a part-time starter as a junior, the most critical year in recruiting. He attended one camp – Mississippi State’s – and slipped on his 40. "It was awful. It went terrible," Dugger told NFL.com. "We were the last team to show up, and I was the last guy to run, and I slipped in front of everybody." He redshirted his first year in college but kept grinding toward a goal that not even he knew. “It’s hard to explain what exactly was on my mind,” Dugger told the Athletic. “At times it seemed like there was a voice that was in my head, like God was telling me to just keep going, just work. I didn’t really know what I was working toward. I just wanted to be the best player I could be when I had an opportunity to get on the field more so than anything.” He was the only Division II player picked for the Senior Bowl. “I pay attention to it in a good way, I kind of use it as fuel,” Dugger said at the all-star game. “There’s a chip on my shoulder.”
Jalen Elliott, Notre Dame (6-0, 210): Elliott was a three-year starter with six career interceptions. As a senior team captain, he had two interceptions and two more breakups. He was much more productive as a junior, with four interceptions, seven additional breakups and a career-high 67 tackles (including his only career TFL).
The start of his football career wasn’t smooth, nor was it smooth to start at Notre Dame. He was a quarterback and receiver in high school, so it’s no surprise he had some early struggles with the Irish. “It took a lot of practice and a lot of work. I was very raw coming in,” Elliott told the Notre Dame Observer. “I played quarterback in high school so it was a little different, but a lot of the same tools I used vocally playing quarterback I use playing safety, so it was just about learning the technique and making sure that I was in the right spots for my team.” He started in 2017 but lost his job briefly in camp before the 2018 season. “I wasn’t owning my end of the bargain,” he told NDInsider.com. “I wasn’t playing well enough. So when I got in that second group, I had to refocus. I had to think about what was important and get back to the basics.” It was a dream to become the team’s captain.
Jordan Fuller, Ohio State (6-2, 205): Fuller was a three-year starter and two-year captain with five career interceptions. As a junior, he had 62 tackles (2.5 for losses) and two interceptions; as a junior, he had one interception and a career-high 81 tackles (2.5 for losses); as a senior, he had 62 tackles (none for losses), two interceptions and a career-high six total passes defensed.
Fuller was a two-time Academic All-American. “That’s probably not the way to go if you want to be a great student,” Fuller told Buckeye Extra. “You won’t have much free time, but it will be worth it in the end. It was a lot of late nights and a lot of times I wanted to go out with the boys to the movies or get a quick game in on (NBA 2K), but I had to say no because I had to study.” He was a hit off the field, too, as a finalist for the William Campbell Trophy – aka the Academic Heisman. “He does everything the way you’d want your son to do it,” coach Ryan Day told Buckeye Extra. “If you had a daughter, you’d want her to marry him. That’s the kind of kid he is. He does everything right. He’s Academic All-American. He’s a tremendous football player. He’s playing at a high level right now. He’s got really good leadership. He does things off the field. He’s very, very respectful. He’s a team captain. It’s like, how many things can you do right, and that’s Jordan, and we’re really blessed to have him.” Brother Devin Fuller played receiver in the NFL, his father played safety for TCU and his mother was a backup singer for Bruce Springstein.
Alohi Gilman, Notre Dame* (5-11, 202): Gilman was a second-team All-American as a junior, when he had 74 tackles, three forced fumbles and one interception. The team captain added one sack and two additional breakups.
Gilman started his career at Navy, where he had 76 tackles as a freshman. He decided to transfer after service-academy athletes were no longer allowed to defer their military service so they could play pro sports. “I wasn’t as passionate in the military,” Gilman told the Indy Star. “I have so much respect for the military. I learned so many things, but I wasn’t as passionate (about) fulfilling that service commitment. They changed the rule, so ultimately that tipped me over to transferring.” As his dad told NDInsider.com: “Alohi gave me the analogy that he wasn’t going to be happy in his life if he was sitting at a desk or even leading 200 to 300 people, and one night he flipped on ‘Monday Night Football’ and knew deep in his heart he could have been playing in that game. My wife and I always instilled in our kids from the get-go that you’re destined to do great things, because you’re special. So how could I argue when he said, ‘I want to test my skills to the highest, and given the chance, I want to step out.’ As he sat out the 2017 season, his leadership ability jumped to the forefront. As he told the Notre Dame Observer: “Navy’s a very unique place, it forces you to grow up really fast,” he said. “Challenges you mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically obviously. So just a place where it really challenged me and a place that forced me to grow up and learn how to be a leader, learn how to be also be a follower, learn how to take orders and be disciplined and organized. Those things were definitely huge to the person I am today.” His father played at Southern Utah and a sister played rugby at Utah Valley.
Jaylinn Hawkins, California (6-2, 210): As a senior, Hawkins was honorable-mention all-Pac-12 with 56 tackles (two sacks, 4.5 for losses), two forced fumbles, three interceptions and five total passes defensed. Highlighted by six interceptions as a junior, including a three-interception game against TCU in the 2018 bowl game, he finished his career with 10 interceptions, seven additional breakups for 17 passes defensed, three forced fumbles and 9.5 tackles for losses.
An uncle, Jeremiah Hawkins, is a receiver at Cal; they were teammates at Buena Park (Calif.) High School. “We’re very competitive. That’s my brother, and I love him, but we are just very competitive towards each other, with one-on-ones and everything,” Jaylinn told the Daily Cal. “We are just trying to make each other better.” He was an elite receiver in high school who made the move to safety. “I played receiver, so I also know a receiver’s techniques, and I know what he’s kind of going to do in the middle of a route,” Hawkins told the Daily Cal. “I have good receiver IQ, so that helps me out, and I can go up and get the ball.”
Brandon Jones, Texas (6-0, 205): A three-year starter, Jones finished his career with 232 tackles, including one sack and 14 for losses, plus three interceptions and seven breakups for 10 passes defensed, and two forced fumbles. He had career highs of 86 tackles, two interceptions and six passes defensed as a senior.
"He's a marry-your-daughter kind of guy,” coach Todd Herman said at Big 12 Media Days. “He does everything right on and off the field and, oh, by the way, he's a really good football player.” During a visit to Austin’s Dell Children’s Medical Center, he formed a friendship with a 14-year-old who was battling bone cancer. As a gift, Jones gave him tickets to Texas’ bowl game. “I couldn’t imagine what he was going through,” Jones told the Athletic. “So I just decided to reach out and told them if it’s possible, I would like to get Jayden’s number, get his mom’s number and just let him know that I’m thinking about him and that he’s on my mind.” Jones is one of five boys – all with first names starting with B. His father, Bert, played at Stephen F. Austin. Bert Jones died of cancer when Brandon was 12. “He’s been my motivation throughout everything,” Brandon told HookEm.com. As his mom, Sarah, told the school athletics site: "Brandon's handled so much of this with such an amazing amount of maturity, and I'm not sure how he's done it. He's had family, friends and coaches who've definitely helped him, but Brandon really has been taking a lot of it on as self-appointed initiative. Maybe this is Bert in heaven helping him along the way."
Xavier McKinney, Alabama* (6-1, 200): McKinney earned second-team All-American in 2019. He finished 10th in the SEC with 95 tackles, which included three sacks and 5.5 for losses. A big hitter with a nose for the football, he tied the school record with four forced fumbles and added three interceptions and five additional breakups. In his two years as a starter, he tallied 169 tackles, six sacks, 11.5 TFLs, five interceptions, 20 total passes defensed and six forced fumbles.
Intense film study got him ready to start as a sophomore. "It's complicated," McKinney told Al.com of Nick Saban’s defense. "It can be complicated when you first get here. But if you study the plays enough and do enough overtime you'll get the plays down. I got it now. It was a work in progress a lot last year, though. It took me a little while to get it down pat, and I have been working on it a lot more. But I've got it.” McKinney is an artist. Frequently, the drawings are motivational in nature. None hang on the wall but some are tattooed to his body. “I feel like I’ve got a lot of improvement to do in my drawing even though some of my stuff is good,” McKinney told The AP. “I think a lot of my stuff is bad.” McKinney committed to Alabama, decommitted, then recommitted. He was considered the “alpha dog” on the defense.
Josh Metellus, Michigan (6-0, 218): Mertellus was a three-time all-Big Ten selection, including a third-team choice as a senior. During his final season, he had 74 tackles (four for losses), two interceptions and five additional breakups. All five career interceptions came during his final two seasons.
On game day, he stares at the man in the mirror. "I look myself in the mirror and say, 'This is the game you've been waiting for all week,’” he told MGoBlue.com. “Growing up, I played a lot of sports, and it always came down to: 'Just do what you can do. Don't try to do too much. You've worked too hard. You did what you have to do in practice. You did what you have to do in the weight room. Just go out there and be you. Be yourself. Nobody can take that from you. Nobody can keep you from doing what you do.’” He had a memorable line after the 2019 blowout of Michigan State. “I was telling them to go home, that it’s time for them to leave. They didn’t deserve to be in our stadium. A native of Pembroke Pines, Fla., Metellus played at Flanagan High School, which is coached by former NFL player Devin Bush. He spent four years at Flanagan and three years at Michigan with Devin Bush Jr., a first-round pick last year by the Steelers.
LET US INTRODUCE YOU TO THE CLASS OF 2020
Introducing the 26 Safeties
Introducing the 35 Cornerbacks
Introducing the 31 Linebackers
Introducing the 34 Edge Rushers
Introducing the 25 Defensive Linemen
Introducing the 20 Tight Ends
Introducing the 25 Offensive Tackles
Introducing the 17 Guards
Introducing the 10 Centers
Introducing the 55 Receivers
Introducing the 30 Running Backs
Introducing the 17 Quarterbacks