When a defensive tackle wins MVP honors, you know he’s special; McKinnley Jackson is

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Keith Warren/MHSAA

Mississippi MVP McKinnley Jackson, 99, rushes Alabama passer Sawyer Pate, 11, during Mississippi’s 17-16 overtime victory over Alabama Saturday at Hattiesburg.

HATTIESBURG – These eyes have seen many all-star games at many different levels of football, but they saw a first here Saturday afternoon when the Mississippi All-Stars defeated Alabama 17-16 in an overtime thriller at The Rock.

McKinnley Jackson, a defensive tackle from George County in Lucedale, was named Mississippi’s Most Valuable Player – an award normally reserved for quarterbacks, running backs or wide receivers. And although there were many Mississippi heroes, Jackson thoroughly deserved the honor. He spent about as much time in the Alabama backfield as the Alabama quarterbacks. Alabama could not block him, period.

Rick Cleveland

Jackson stands 6 feet, 3 inches. And he seems almost as wide as he is tall. He weighs 325 pounds of mostly muscle. His first step is like that of a sprinter. Often, Saturday, he used that quickness to get around the blocker or blockers before they came out of their stance. He threw huge people around like rag dolls.

“My goal always is to be the best player on the field; I want to dominate,” Jackson said, while signing autographs at midfield afterward.

Mission accomplished.

Jackson most often lined up at nose tackle, head to head with the poor center. Other times, he lined up at defensive tackle and on obvious passing downs he sometimes moved outside to defensive end. When Mississippi faced short yardage situations offensively, he entered the game as an extra blocker.

When Mississippi coaches called for the short yardage formation, they shouted “heavy!” They meant it. You had the 325-pound Jackson leading the way for Oxford’s 280-pound JJ Pegues. Heavy, indeed.

Oxford coach Chris Cutcliffe, an offensive assistant on the Mississippi staff, shook his head when asked about Jackson as Mississippi players and fans continued their post-game celebration.

“He’s unreal. He was that way every play and every drill of every practice this week,” Cutcliffe said. “He’s special, he’s the real deal.”

•••

Let’s go back a few days to the Mississippi Mr. Football Banquet at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson where six players from all six classifications were anointed Mr. Football. Jackson won the award for Class 6A.

Keith Warren/MHSAA

McKinley Jackson receives the MVP plaque from Mississippi Association of Coaches Hall of Famer Bubba Davis.

I spoke at the banquet and decided to have a little fun with the winners: a trivia contest on Mississippi football history in a museum where the Magnolia State’s amazing football history is celebrated six days a week 52 weeks a year. I would give the statistics and hometown of a Mississippi football legend and ask the six Mr. Footballs for the correct name. If this had been “Jeopardy,” McKinnley Jackson would be a millionaire. He knew every answer before I could finish the question. It became almost comical.

Jackson smiled Saturday when we talked about it again.

“Mississippi has such a great history of so many great football players,” Jackson said “I’ve studied it because I think it’s important to know who those people are. I want to be part of that history.”

He is well on his way. For some reason, recruiting services and websites rate him a four-star recruit (on a five-star scale). If they were watching Saturday, a fifth star is on the way. And that’s only because six stars are not available.

Asked Saturday which schools he is still considering, Jackson answered, “Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M.”

Ole Miss has long been listed as one of his favorites. He did not mention Ole Miss Saturday but did say that Georgia offered him and he is trying to decide if and when to visit there.

•••

George County football coach and athletic director Matt Caldwell moved to Lucedale five years ago when Jackson was in the eighth grade. People kept telling him about this middle schooler who was a junior high version of “The Incredible Hulk.” So Caldwell made it a point to go meet him.

Keith Warren/MHSAA

McKinnley Jackson, 99, disrupted most of what Alabama tried to do offensively Saturday.

“Somebody pointed him out to me and I said, ‘No way, I was told he was in the eighth grade. That man looks like he’s in college,’” Caldwell said. “I could not believe what I saw. He was a grown man.”

At the time, the 14-year-old Jackson was 6-1 and weighed 270 and played fullback and middle linebacker.

“All it took was watching him for about 10 seconds to see the ability and know how good he could be,” Caldwell said. “I had no idea then that he was going to be the hardest worker, too.”

“I have no idea where he will go,” Caldwell said. “McKinnley plays it pretty close to the vest. I know one thing, he’s going to make somebody’s day when he decides.”

Caldwell said when Jackson visited LSU, Ed Orgeron told Caldwell that Jackson reminds him most of Warren Sapp, the great Miami defensive tackle and NFL star whom Orgeron helped recruit to Miami.

“Now I don’t know if McKinnley is going to be a Hall of Famer like Warren Sapp, but it’s nice to be mentioned in the same sentence,” Caldwell said.

My guess: It won’t be the last time. McKinnley Jackson, who knows his football history, plans to make some.