A little over a year ago, Verone McKinley III was beat on a game-costing 26-yard touchdown in the final seconds of the 2019 season opener against Auburn.
Fast forward one year later, heading into 2020, McKinley III has developed from one of the newcomers to the secondary to being one of its leaders following opt-outs from Thomas Graham Jr., Brady Breeze and Jevon Holland.
The latter of which has given McKinley III the keys to the secondary.
"We had a conversation and he said ‘It’s time for you to step up. I expect to see you right behind me one to two years later’," recalled McKinley III of a conversation he had with Holland as he described it during Monday's press conference.
“Now, it’s understanding that I have to step into a leadership role, really make sure I pick up teammates, my communication and my energy at practice, and be one of those leaders."
McKinley III had won the starting nickel position heading into his redshirt freshman season but switched positions with Holland shortly into the season. Now heading into 2020, it's unclear whether McKinley III will remain at free safety or move back to nickel, but one thing is for sure:
The 2019 Pac-12 leader in interceptions will be on the field making plays.
“It doesn’t matter to me [which position I play]," he said. "I just want to be on the field and make plays. We have guys like Jamal Hill, Mykael [Wright], Bennett [Williams] who can [make plays in] all of those positions. There isn’t a big drop off. Those guys have been ready.
“The thing between nickel and free safety is that they’re interchangeable. So if you’re able to play safety, you’re able to play nickel. For someone like me who wants to know everything, I know that corner spot, I know the nickel spot and I know free safety, it’s like a puzzle. Defense is like a puzzle. So being able to put pieces together is what makes up the puzzle."
In year two of Andy Avalos' scheme in Eugene, Oregon expects to see growth throughout the defense despite the opt-outs of NFL-caliber talents.
“I would say, we’re picking up to be better than the defense last year," explained McKinley III. "We fly around. We have fun. We make plays and we communicate. We’re just ready to have fun. We got another opportunity to play football, so we’re looking forward to it.
“We all practice the same. We all get the same concepts. We understand everything. So, It was like next man up no matter what happens. We all got to be ready to play. We’re all ready to have fun."
As for Holland's decision, McKinley III supports him through and through: “Of course, I understood the decision he made. That’s one of my best friends. I loved playing with him this past year. It was so much fun."
Soon, it'll be time for McKinley III to make his best friend proud while balling out against Stanford on November 7th.