In almost every article or piece of content we put out over the summer or in the early portions of the college football season, we almost always preface them with a line highlighting that the evaluation process is a long and fluid one that is ever-changing. With more time, tape, and as other information comes to light, our evaluations and opinions on certain prospects are almost certainly to change both for the better or for worse. One player that has certainly caught the eyes of scouts and evaluators alike is Oregon junior safety Verone McKinley III.
McKinley is a name many in the college football community were unfamiliar with entering this season but that has certainly changed. Playing on a defense that is loaded with not just stars at the collegiate level, but future top-15 prospects like defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, linebacker Noah Sewell, and linebacker Justin Flowe, it has been McKinley who has emerged as the star and leader of this Oregon Ducks defense.
McKinley was outstanding in Week 1 of this college football season against a Fresno State team that was grossly underrated entering the season. McKinley finished that game with eight total tackles with a number of them coming at crucial points in the game to ensure Oregon outlasted the Bulldogs in a very tight game. Then, the very next week, McKinley went on to become a household name for his play against the then No. 3-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. He put his complete skill set on display in Columbus, breaking up two passes, forcing a fumble, and then coming down with the game-sealing interception to ensure a Ducks victory. McKinley continued his excellent season recording two interceptions the following week against Stoney Brook. He currently is tied for the national lead in interceptions with four in just five games this season and has truly been a revelation in the backend of the Ducks defense.
This sort of ball production will undoubtedly catch the eyes of evaluators all throughout the NFL. NFL front office members and defensive coaches are always looking for defensive players who can create turnovers and there have been few who have done it better than McKinley.
McKinley has just above average size for an NFL safety standing at just 5-foot-11 and tipping the scale at 194 pounds, but he plays much bigger than that. In the run game, McKinley flashes outstanding instincts and is quick to read and diagnose while flashing a quick trigger to come downhill and fill running lanes. He is an excellent tackler in space and will look to deliver big blows upon contact—sometimes to the detriment of his own health.
McKinley’s skill set is best displayed when it comes to the passing game. He aligns as a single-high safety, split safety in two-high coverages as well as manning the slot position at times. He displays above-average athleticism and is a fluid and smooth mover in coverage. McKinley has excellent range in coverage and shows a very good ability to break and close on passes made in front of him or near his landmark.
What truly sets McKinley apart are his instincts and route anticipation. He has rare football I.Q and can read the quarterback's eyes while also reading receivers' movements to put himself in the best position to make a play on the football. In addition to his instincts and awareness, he flashes outstanding ball skills and hands to secure the interception when many defensive backs would settle for a pass defended.
McKinley’s success this season comes as little surprise for those close to the Oregon program. As a redshirt freshman, McKinley led the Pac-12 in interceptions with four and that was while playing next to 2021 second-round pick Jevon Holland. But what Oregon fans have quickly realized is that it’s not just McKinley’s ball production that makes him such an important player for the team, it’s his leadership ability. Nicknamed “The General” by his teammates and coaches, McKinley is the unquestioned leader of this football team and is referred to as a coach on the field. He is constantly lining up his teammates on defense, calling out alerts and tendencies when the offense comes out in certain schemes.
The updated TDN100 will be released next week and McKinley was one of the highest risers among all the prospects. He went from unranked to now being the No. 47 overall player on our board and fifth safety. His game reminds me of a mix of Quandre Diggs and Marcus Maye in that they may not win with pure speed, range, and athleticism but with uncanny instincts, anticipation, toughness, and ball skills. Every NFL team could use a versatile playmaker in the backend of their defense, and I fully expect McKinley to hear his name called early in next year’s NFL draft.