That approach to the game has seemed to work quite well on the football field.
Entrenched as the full-time starting quarterback at Georgia Southern, after previously seeing time as a running back and defensive back, the former Sprayberry High School star is one of 20 players who is on the Walter Payton Award watch list.
The annual award, named after the Hall of Fame Chicago Bears running back and product of FCS-level Jackson State, is presented to the top offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision. Past winners include such NFL mainstays as Steve McNair, Tony Romo, Brian Westbrook and Brian Finneran.
When asked about being part of the select few on the Payton Award’s preseason list, McKinnon credited his team.
“It’s a blessing and an honor,” he said. “I’m excited about the whole situation, but if it hadn’t been for my team, I wouldn’t be in this situation right now. Being on the list is a reflection on what we did last year.”
While leading Georgia Southern to a 10-4 record and its third straight FCS semifinal appearance in 2012, the 5-foot-9, 205-pound McKinnon finished the season as the Eagles’ top rusher and scorer with 1,817 yards and 27 touchdowns in the team’s triple-option offense. He also threw for 597 yards and seven touchdowns.
His rushing yards in 2012 were the third-highest single-season total in Georgia Southern history, behind fullback Adrian Peterson (1,932) and quarterback Jayson Foster (1,834) — both former Walton Payton award winners.
McKinnon and Foster also have a common link in their roads to Georgia Southern — Robert Horn, who coached the quarterbacks at Sprayberry and Cherokee, Foster’s alma mater. After he signed to play for the Eagles, McKinnon said he talked to Foster, who played in Statesboro from 2004-07, about the expectations of Georgia Southern’s football program.
McKinnon still has one more year and is approaching 3,000 career yards. Another season like he had in 2012, and he would finish third in Georgia Southern history for career rushing yards.
And McKinnon still doesn’t give himself all the credit.
“(Quarterbacks coach Mitch) Ware does a good job teaching his philosophy,” McKinnon said. “He helps us with check plays and is good at working with the other quarterbacks. He really elevated my game.”
McKinnon was required to step up at the next level a month into his freshman season when the Eagles’ starting quarterback, Georgia Tech transfer Jaybo Shaw, was injured early in a game against The Citadel. Pressed into duty, McKinnon went on to run for 182 yards on a then-record 35 attempts.
The following season, McKinnon played in 13 games and started seven. He had 705 all-purpose yards and a combined nine touchdowns — passing, rushing and receiving scores.
McKinnon’s versatility showed in the FCS playoffs in 2011. With the depth of Georgia Southern’s secondary in question, and a desire of the coaching staff to get the talented athlete more playing time, McKinnon switched sides and started all three postseason games at cornerback, intercepting a pair of passes in a quarterfinal-round win over Maine.
With Shaw’s departure after the 2011 season, McKinnon was elevated to starting quarterback in 2012 and put up his biggest season yet, highlighted by 316 rushing yards in a playoff win over Central Arkansas — the second-highest total in team history. He ultimately averaged 129.8 rushing yards on the season, with six games of 100 or more.
McKinnon’s final season at Georgia Southern will be an awkward one, with Georgia Southern ineligible for the FCS playoffs after announcing its leap to the Football Bowl Subdivision and the Sun Belt Conference.
McKinnon, however, said he and the Eagles have plenty to play for.
“With our program moving to the next level, we still have a chance to put our name out there,” he said. “We still have a lot to prove.”