Xavier McKinney exclusive: Learning from Nick Saban and facing my brother Tua Tagovailoa

“As far as the way I do things I try to make them as perfect as possible.”

It’s second-and-eight early in the first quarter, Western Carolina quarterback Tyrie Adams takes the snap. Xavier McKinney, lined up at free safety, could bite on tight end Parker Swaringen’s go route but spots the play, simultaneously back-peddling, swivelling his hips and analysing the trajectory to beat Darius Ramsey to the ball for the pick on the hash marks.

Granted, the Alabama star faced more taxing challenges in 2019 than a 66-3 blowout against the Catamounts, but this was a nice play. A glimpse of the on-field intelligence and smooth footwork that attracted the New York Giants to him.

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The latter is something McKinney is dedicated to polishing.

“I’m a technician so every time I go out there to work on the field as far as my footwork goes, I try to make sure it’s as perfect as it can be,” McKinney told Sky Sports.

If I go out there to work one day and feel like I messed up on a rep or felt like my feet weren’t how I wanted them to be then I’ll keep doing that same rep over and over again until I feel like ‘okay, that’s how I want to feel’.”

Elegance to his footwork is matched by a burst at the line of scrimmage and brute force to his hits. Fail to block him at the blitz and there is little room to escape. Just ask Joe Burrow, the No 1 overall pick being sacked twice by No 15 in LSU’s 46-41 win in November.

McKinney’s versatility is a reflection of a work ethic well-aligned to the expectations of six-time National Championship-winning head coach Nick Saban, whose reputation alone demands production and commitment of the highest standard at Alabama.

It didn’t take long for the iconic college coach to set the bar for a young man coming out of Roswell High School.

“When I came into college I always worked hard, that’s always been a part of me, I’ve always wanted to be the best person out on the field,” said McKinney. “But when I got there, he (Saban) was such a great coach and somebody I didn’t want to make mad or didn’t want to disappoint.

“I would literally do anything that I could to make sure I didn’t have any mistakes or anything that he could say I did wrong.

“I got to a point where I wanted to be as great as a player as he was as a coach. I wanted to get on his level. That’s what definitely pushed me and took me to another level in terms of my mentality and how I prepare for the game, how I looked at certain things.”

First-year Giants head coach Joe Judge offers a sense of familiarity for McKinney having worked alongside Saban as Alabama’s special teams assistant from 2009-2011.

“I didn’t actually know he’d coached at ‘Bama a while back,” he admitted. When I got to talk to him it was the same feeling that I had for coach Saban, he was on a strict game plan, somebody I could tell I would really click with.

“He’s a guy that likes structure and that’s what I like. When I talked to him I was very happy, excited because from that moment when we actually got on the meeting and I actually got to talk to him, that was a coach that I would have loved to play for.”

McKinney acknowledges the ‘challenges’ that came with being at such a prestigious program like that of Alabama, whether it be performing in front of 100,000 fans or making his way in the classroom.

The unwritten rule of no let-up was something he embraced, relished. It’s why the Crimson Tide continues to breed such strong winning mentalities.

“So I would wake up in the morning…”. the 20-year-old barely draws breathe as he narrates a typical mid-season day with the blow-by-blow, no stone unturned briefing reminiscent of a slick heist movie.

“I’d have my class in the morning and then after class I would go straight up to the facility and start studying for practice,” he explains. “I would go upstairs with coach and go over plays and then once we did that we would pretty much break down all the films from that opponent that we’re facing that week, then watch some of our practice stuff.

“Then once we had finished that we would go over coach Saban’s notes which is what he was having us do as far as coverage that week. After that I would go downstairs, get ready for practice, still be studying and then go into the meetings.”

And breathe.

“We’d go out there to practice, then after practice I’d go back upstairs, sometimes I wouldn’t even take a shower,” he said. “I’d go straight up just because I wanted to make sure I got the coaches before, because they had meetings right after practice.

“I’d go up there, watch practice, go through practice with coach, then we’ll watch the defense against our own team. I would be there until about 10pm or whenever coach wants to leave, from morning to night, every day.”

That attention to detail amounted to a team-high 95 tackles on the year, along with three sacks, five passes defended, three interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown) and four forced fumbles.

He holds Alabama close to his heart. It’s where the newly-drafted NFL rookie was cultivated, where he became a man, where he chased a mutual dream with teammates-turned-friends for life.

“It’s a place that I’ll never forget, I wouldn’t take it back for anything,” he said.

One of those with whom he shared that journey was Tua Tagovailoa, the new Miami Dolphins quarterback.

There’s a grin from McKinney as his good friend is brought up in conversation – “That’s always been my brother.” He becomes the latest addition to a long list of people without a bad word to say about the No 5 overall pick.

Not only a jaw-dropping talent on the field, but an exceptional human-being off it. Somebody McKinney could always rely on.

“We were in the same class so we came in together,” he said. “He’s always going to go 110 per cent every time he touches the field, he’s a great leader and as you know a great player.

“He’s a great person, I think that’s the biggest thing about Tua. That dude is a great person, you don’t see a lot of football players be great at football and be a great person off the field. He’s one of those guys.

“He’s a guy that you can really tell him anything, he welcomes really anybody and anything you have to say. You can always trust him no matter what situation you might be in on the field or off the field.”

That first reunion on the field, while it won’t be in 2020, is one he is excited for.

“That’s somebody I’m going to be looking forward to playing,” he continued. “Of course we had our battles in practice a couple of times so definitely if we play Miami and I get a chance to pick him off I might have to sign the ball and give it back to him or something.”

McKinney’s NFL debut is likely to come before that of Tagovailoa, who may well sit and learn behind veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick for much, if not all, of his rookie year.

Should the regular season start on time, the Pittsburgh Steelers await as the Giants’ opening opponents. For McKinney, his MetLife bow will evoke memories of 2018’s matchup with Louisville as a sophomore.

“That was my first collegiate start, it was pretty crazy when I got out there because I was like ‘man, I’m really about to start’ and that was just college so in the pros I’m sure it’s going to be a different feeling,” he said.

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