Now, he’s trying to make up for lost time and has tried to turn a pretty negative circumstance into a positive.
“Right after it happened I was like, ‘I made it here, I’m excited to play, excited to learn after the Combine and all that other stuff and this happens’,” he said this morning at the stadium. “It’s huge but it helps you get stronger and to the point where I am now. You just have to be strong and keep bouncing back.
“That’s what I’ve done my entire life. Now I’m just excited to play.”
Bill Belichick has lauded this kid’s maturity level from the start, citing his decision to transfer home to South Florida from Iowa State to support his mother (he worked the graveyard shift at a Tampa-area Hampton Inn), who’d been in a serious car accident. And that maturity was pretty clearly on display this morning, from his attitude during rehab — “treated the (season) the same way” as he would’ve playing — to his approach now.
He spent all of last season in the area, and has been part of the entire offseason program this spring.
“Nothing is mandatory,” he said. “They can encourage what they want. They wanted me to be around for the surgery and so forth. I decided to stay up here. Me going away, I’m not going to learn anything. I could have took my playbook, and tried to learn as much as I can, but there’s no coach around for me to ask questions. The coaches are busy throughout the season. So every chance you have to grab them, when you’re in the linebacker meeting room, that’s your chance to ask a question real quick, and so it was best for me to stay up here.
“I sat in on all the meetings. I learned everything that I could. That
was the goal, learn everything I could. And when they went to go
practice, I did my rehab.”
And now, he feels up to speed.
He’ll get a chance for more football-specific stuff next week, when the team kicks off its OTAs, which will really mark his official return to the field. After that, the next big step will be contact, something he says he’s not worried about, coming off the injury, but an aspect of the game he’ll have to wait until training camp to re-assimilate himself to.
“I love the defense, because it keeps you thinking the entire game,” McKenzie said. “When you’re out there, you have to make all the checks, all the calls, everyone’s looking to you. And when you stand in front of that huddle, looking at guys, you gotta know what you’re talking about.
“That’s why I love the defense, because you get to actually be a true player, all-around. You’re not just out there making one call. You’re making all the calls, so it keeps you thinking and shows how intelligent you can be.”
OK, now for the kind of player the Patriots are getting … McKenzie says he’s bulked up to 248 pounds after playing at 240 in college, and didn’t hold back in assessing his ability.
“Thing about it, it’s tough for me to put a label on my game and myself,” he said. “I’m more of a hybrid linebacker, to where I have the size, I have the height, I have the weight, but I have the speed too. So there’s a lot of assets I have on the field.
“I’m strong as an offensive lineman, so I can hit offensive linemen, but at the same time, I can go out there and run with a running back, so it’s hard to say.”
So now, he gets tossed in what should be a spirited competition at inside linebacker will fellow youngsters Jerod Mayo, Gary Guton and Brandon Spikes for roles and playing time. Which, he’d agree, is a heck of a lot better than the way he spent last year.