After a junior season in which he played only five games at safety because of a shoulder injury, Keith McGill’s coaches at Utah turned to the film of a former Ute — and current Chief — to show McGill what he could do if he moved to cornerback.
“I was playing safety up at Utah, and nobody really threw the ball my way,” McGill said. “I was kind of just back there roaming from sideline to sideline. After the year ended, the coach was like ‘Hey, we’ve got to get you involved, so they sat me down and showed me five to 10 minutes of Sean Smith and his transition from receiver.”
McGill, who checks in at 6 feet 3 and 211 pounds, could not deny his physical similarities to Smith, who is listed at 6 feet 3 and 215.
“They showed me how he started out and how I started out,” McGill said, “and I was pretty glad that we were kind of the same.”
McGill, a junior-college transfer who had only 12 tackles and a pass breakup in 2011, sat out 2012 while recovering from a shoulder injury. He returned with a vengeance at his new position last season, when he logged 37 tackles, 12 pass breakups and an interception.
Now, thanks to the success of Seattle, which rode a group of lanky, aggressive cornerbacks to a Super Bowl victory, big corners such as McGill are now en vogue, though such NFL personnel men as Chiefs general manager John Dorsey have always preferred big corners.
“Ever since I’ve been in the league, size has mattered at the cornerback position,” said Dorsey, a former linebacker. “I go back to the days of guys like Mike Haynes, Emmitt Thomas. To me, those were like real corners. To me, size makes a difference.”
McGill, who is expected to be an early to midround pick, credited coach Kyle Whittingham and his staff at Utah for helping him make the transition, and noted their past experience with Smith only helped their efforts to develop him.
“I think they kind of harped on some things with me that they didn’t with him because they were kind of feeling it out with him,” McGill said. “After the year, I think they said if (they) could have had him for maybe a year or more, they probably could have turned him into somebody great.”
That’s not to say McGill thinks lightly of the 26-year-old Smith, who signed a three-year contract with the Chiefs before last season. As McGill noted, Utah did win the Sugar Bowl in Smith’s last season, and he did go in the second round, and McGill counts Smith among the big corners he looks up to, along with Seattle’s Richard Sherman.
“They’re showing not only the National Football League but also the world that big guys can move,” McGill said. “It makes it that much easier of a transition for guys like me.”
While being tall can cause problems for big corners, who tend to be less agile than smaller corners, McGill, who ran a 4.51 40-yard dash and also had an impressive 39-inch vertical jump, knows his technique is key if he’s going to make it at this level. He said his coaches at Utah drilled that into his head.
“They said if you play lower than your opponent, then you have the leverage on him,” McGill said. “The big thing for me is getting low, not only from the start but coming out of breaks and making tackles.”
McGill is confident in his press-man technique, but when asked about defending smaller receivers, his mentality mirrors that of Smith’s, who has admitted that facing small guys is harder than facing big guys.
“I watch a lot of film and I know my speed,” McGill said. “I know if somebody’s there that’s 160 pounds, there is only one thing he can do and that’s run fast and catch the ball, so I tend to back up depending on down and distance.
“When I go against a smaller guy I kind of know he’s gonna be a little quicker than me and may accelerate faster than me, though I definitely don’t downplay my athleticism. But when I see a bigger guy, I smile and say ‘OK, who’s better?’ I see it as more of a competition with a bigger guy because it’s one-on-one.”