It’s been a rough season for UCLA.
In the midst of today’s news about Josh Rosen being done for the year, a three game losing streak, a nonexistent running game, receivers who can’t catch passes consistently and coming off a defensive collapse against Joe Williams and Utah, there hasn’t been much to smile about in Westwood this season. Big dreams and lofty goals came crashing down in a hurry.
But let’s forget all of that, just for once. Instead, as the 2016 season reaches the bell lap, let’s focus in on what has surely been the happiest development for the Bruins this season: defensive end Takkarist McKinley playing like a surefire All-American and a potential day one NFL draft pick.
Before the season started, McKinley made the bold claim that he would “get to show why I’m going to be the pass-rusher in the country.” It was especially bold coming from a guy whose 2015 stat line - 4.0 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss over 13 games - wasn’t indicative of an elite pass-rusher.
This season, in the 7 games he’s played in, Takk has nearly doubled his 2015 stat line, racking up 7.0 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss and terrorizing opposing linemen and being among the national leaders in both categories.
He’s putting his future NFL money where his mouth was before the season started.
Oh yeah, and he’s been doing it hurt all year. After tearing his groin in training camp, Takk has powered through, only missing the UNLV game and playing sparingly after the first quarter against Texas A&M.
Can you imagine what his stat line would be if he played more than 1 full quarter of those available 8?
It’s irrefutable that McKinley is the heartbeat of the UCLA defense. As a redshirt senior, he’s done nothing but go all out for as long as he can, injuries be damned. As linebacker Jayon Brown told Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times:
-Source: Takkarist McKinley sparks UCLA’s defense with pure grit (10/25/16)
Giving his all is earning Takk national attention. He’s put NFL scouts and draftniks on notice, with one scout even comparing him to Demarcus Ware, citing his high school time of 10.58 seconds in the 100 meter dash and calling him a “freak athlete.” Lead Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller had this to say about Takk as well:
UCLA DE Takkarist McKinley is the real deal. He was ALL OVER the field against Utah.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) October 27, 2016
So what has made McKinley so special this season? How has he made the jump from solid rotation player to a scheme-altering nightmare off the edge? Let’s go to the game tape for snippets on what has made him so good this season and why he’s the reason you shouldn’t tune out of UCLA games for this season.
- Takkarist McKinley has elite speed
The first thing you notice watching McKinley play is his freak speed. As noted above, he ran a 10.57 second 100 meter dash in high school. For context, that would have placed him among Olympians this summer in Rio.
As a 17 or 18 year old.
I will stick my neck out there and say I don’t think Usain Bolt or Justin Gatlin could do that while weighing 263 pounds.
Just watch the play below from the Arizona State game. In this game, defensive coordinator Tom Bradley actually rolled out a unique wrinkle: lining Takk up from middle linebacker to get him a head start on blitzing the quarterback. Every time UCLA lined him up here, he blitzed. Arizona State eventually got wise to this, and yet still couldn’t stop him.
Bruins rolled out an interesting wrinkle Saturday to take advantage of Takk McKinley's speed, standing him up and using him as a blitzing LB pic.twitter.com/2inGJGhx8B— Matt Cummings (@mbcummings15) October 11, 2016
GIF courtesy of Daily Bruin beat writer Matt Cummings (@mbcummings).
He leaves the running back who was to block him in a heap and flushes the quarterback out to throw the ball away to force a punt. This won’t show up on stat sheets, but it’s a ridiculous play for even a linebacker or defensive back to make, let alone a defensive end PLAYING INJURED.
Take the play below from the Utah game as well. I’m sure you remember it. Troy Williams drops back to pass, and all of a sudden, Takk zooms around the edge and sacks and strips him of the ball AT THE SAME TIME. By the time he and the Utes quarterback land on the ground, McKinley comes up with the football. It’s an exceptional play made possible by Takk’s otherworldly speed off the edge. The Utah tackles, whether left or right, had no chance against him all game, as he finished with 3 sacks and 5 total tackles for loss.
(Notice Takk’s hands in the first replay. He lifts the guard off his feet with his right hand like a trebuchet. He’s undersized but has some grown man strength.)
- Takk is strong in the running game, but it’s not always consistent
For being somewhat undersized as a 4-3 defensive end, McKinley is a strong dude. Up until the Utah debacle, UCLA’s run defense had been holding opponents to well under 4 yards a carry, and the defensive line was a big reason why. It wasn’t just McKinley, but guys like Eddie Vanderdoes, Matt Dickerson and others were doing a good job of maintaining gap control and holding up lanes for linebackers like Jayon Brown and Kenny Young to fill and make tackles. Nevertheless, when healthy enough to play and rotate in, he’s been a force that offensive linemen can’t reckon with on the edge.
In this clip against Texas A&M, McKinley (at the bottom of the line of scrimmage) shoots off and sets a hard edge by busting a double team sent at him, knocking back both lineman at least a yard. He’s so fast that the linemen can’t combine quick enough to block him to set up the stretch run. The running back is unable to get outside of him, and Jaleel Wadood mops up for a tackle for loss. It’s another play that won’t show up in box scores but will certainly make NFL general managers notice when evaluating him come April.
Takk is by no means a perfect prospect. His run defense still needs some improvement, but as above shows, the signs are there. A big reason why Utah’s running game gashed UCLA was in large part due to the Utes sending extra blockers at McKinley. He was consistently a target of blocks coming across the formation on counters and misdirections, and Utah also used his speed against him by running by him after he knifed upfield past the tackle. In Takk’s defense, he wasn’t the only one to struggle against these kinds of runs. The point is that while he is not a perfect prospect and still has areas of improvement, his run-stuffing ability is still good enough for NFL teams to warrant spending a day-one draft pick on him.
There are dozens more clips I could have shown for Takk this season. He’s been an absolute delight for UCLA fans and a terror for opposing offenses. There are 9000 more words I could have written about him, but I’ll end it with one last clip at the very bottom.
This is textbook technique combined with freaky athleticism. His first steps left set up his inside rush, and he balances himself perfectly and has his arms ready to stab away the incoming cut block. The thing is, his inside steps are so quick the Utah lineman dives at air, and two steps later, Takk hosts another party in the Utah backfield.
It’s plays like these that will see to #98 having a long NFL career. As NFL linemen get smaller and quicker, defensive ends and pass rushers will need to get quicker to keep up. Luckily for McKinley, there don’t seem to be quite as many edger rushers with 10.6 100 meter speed and otherworldly athletic ability like him.
UCLA fans, let’s enjoy him while we have him for 4 or 5 more games. It’s a shame this is his last year, but Takkarist McKinley looks to be another in the lineage of elite Bruin defenders in the NFL.