McKinnley Jackson, 99, dominated Alabama linemen in the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star game.

Mississippi’s population has declined in recent years. Young people have led the way. That’s not good.

Here’s what is worst for fans of Mississippi’s college football teams: The state’s best high school player – one of the best in memory – appears headed out of state when he signs his national letter of intent Wednesday. Worse still, he almost surely will play in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference.

George County defensive tackle McKinnley Jackson, Lucedale’s version of The Incredible Hulk, will make his choice known in a ceremony at his high school at 9:30 a.m. Insiders believe he will choose either Alabama or Texas A&M, although both LSU and Auburn are also among his final four schools.

Jackson visited Texas A&M this past weekend. Nick Saban and his new defensive line coach Freddie Roach visited Jackson at his school last week. Auburn and LSU also made school visits. New Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin was at George County early last week in a last-gasp effort but apparently made no headway. That’s understandable. Kiffin was late to this game. Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zack Arnett reportedly was in Lucedale as well, apparently without success.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Matt Caldwell, Jackson’s high school coach. “McKinnley is playing it close to the vest.”

Rick Cleveland

My guess would be Alabama, but that’s not based on anything other than Saban’s track record and the fact that Roach built a warm relationship with Jackson when he was coaching and recruiting at Ole Miss the last three years.

My next guess is that whoever lands Jackson will be getting a three-year starter, who will then head for the NFL. That’s barring major injury, of course. Jackson is one of the best – if not the best – high school defensive linemen these eyes have seen.

Don’t take it from me. Listen to Petal’s Marcus Boyles, whose Petal Panthers compete in the same classification and division as George County.

“McKinnley is one of those one-in-a-lifetime guys,” Boyles said. “He’s a game-changer, a really special player.”

Petal soundly defeated George County this past fall essentially by avoiding Jackson.

Said Boyles, “If McKinnley lined up over the center, we ran wide. They did a good job of moving him around, so when they moved him to one side or the other, we simply ran the ball the other direction. And when we threw the ball, we got it out quick. We knew we couldn’t use a five-step drop, because we could not block him that long. Really, nobody could even with double and triple teaming. He’s too strong, too fast.

“His first step is so explosive and quick. I mean, you watch film of him, and when the center’s hand starts to move, the first guy you see move, I mean every time, is him.”

In the Mississippi-Alabama All-Star game – in which Jackson was chosen MVP for the victorious Mississippians – Jackson dominated Alabama’s best offensive linemen the same way he had George County’s foes.

The various recruiting services list the 6-feet-2, 330-pound Jackson as a four-star (out of five) recruit. And that brings up the question of what happened to that other star? Boyles may have the answer.

“I think there were times when he was younger that maybe McKinnley didn’t play hard on every down, that maybe he took some plays off,” Boyles said. “But I surely didn’t see that this past season. As far as I could tell, he played his tail off on every snap.”

Ole Miss was apparently much in the hunt for Jackson’s services until Matt Luke was fired. People  close to Jackson said he really liked Luke and also had the relationship with Roach.

What is hard to explain is how Mississippi State was never really in it. The Bulldogs, of course, recruited him hard. Eric Moulds, one of State’s all-time greats, is Jackson’s first cousin. Dylan Lawrence, a freshman defensive back at State, is another cousin.

And State has had such a track record in recent years of sending defensive linemen to the pros. Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat were first rounders in 2019. Chris Jones, a Super Bowl hero Sunday for Kansas City, was a second rounder in 2016. Preston Smith was a second rounder in 2015. Fletcher Cox, a first rounder in 2012, remains one of the most highly rated defensive tackles in the sport.

None of that apparently mattered to Jackson. It appears highly likely McKinnley Jackson, Mississippi born and bred, will play against Mississippi teams for at least these next three seasons.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.