MISSOULA — With Gresch Jensen sitting a few chairs down making his press conference debut, Ryan McKinley leaned into the microphone to tell a joke in hopes of loosening up Montana’s redshirt freshman quarterback.
“Everyone knows Gresch is the real No. 2,” said McKinley, a UM senior who like Jensen also wears No. 2.
While the comment put a smile on Jensen’s face as he sat in front of the media horde, make no mistake: McKinley does not taking wearing No. 2 lightly. In fact, his number is a daily reminder of the elite player who came before him and the tradition he’s trying to uphold as the senior leader of Montana’s secondary.
Justin Gaines, a senior in 1999, was the first standout cornerback to wear No. 2 in the most recent generation of Grizzlies. After Gaines, mostly pass catchers — namely Jon Talmage, then Craig Chambers — wore the deuce. In 2008, Trumaine Johnson took over the number and produced like few who had ever worn it before him.
Johnson earned All-American honors in 2010 and 2011, carving out a reputation as one of the best cover cornerbacks in college football. Johnson was a third-round selection in the 2012 NFL Draft by then St. Louis Rams.
During the first week of the NFL season this fall, Johnson earned NFL Defensive Player of the Week honors for the now Los Angeles Rams. Johnson, who led the NFL in interceptions in 2015, will be the highest paid corner in football this season, his second under LA’s franchise tag.
When McKinley first arrived on campus in 2013 from Anthem, Arizona, former cornerbacks coach Aric Williams bestowed the number upon McKinley. The digit is also an ode to Shalon Baker, the man known as the “Touchdown Maker” during his memorable Griz career and McKinley’s primary recruiter out of Boulder Creek High.
For the next four years after Williams anointing, McKinley waited his turn in a position group that featured a dynamic senior leader.
In 2013, McKinley watched the charismatic Anthony “Chief” Goodwin, a second-team All-Big Sky Conference selection in his final season. In 2014, Josh Dennard’s magnetic personality set the pace for UM’s defensive backs and the senior earned second-team All-Big Sky honors as well. In 2015, extroverted Nate Harris set the tone with his sharp trash talking and his third-team All-Big Sky play. Last season, the smooth athleticism of J.R. Nelson helped the long corner earn a shot in the NFL despite missing more than half of his senior season due to suspension.
Now, with No. 2 on his back and Big Sky play beginning tonight in Missoula against Eastern Washington, it’s McKinley’s turn.
“Coach Williams wanted me to wear this number after the guy who wore it before me (Trumaine Johnson) and I’ve felt a huge responsibility wearing this number,” McKinley said as he stood on the Washington-Grizzly Stadium moments before Tuesday’s practice. “I embrace it. Early on, I did not embrace it. Now I’m really embracing it knowing there’s a tradition behind this number.
“I definitely feel the responsibility. All the years I’ve been here, we’ve had a senior cornerback and that is so huge. To have a senior leader who’s been around, who has seen it all, that’s huge. It’s a sense of pride and responsibility with this jersey number I wear. I love it. It’s weird thinking five years ago I was the young one and now I’m the old head in the room.”
Early in Montana’s season — the Griz are off to a 2-1 start that included a 56-3 win over Savannah State last week in which McKinley scored his first career touchdown on an interception return — the 6-foot-1,193-pounder has become a sort of spokesman for UM’s group of 10 fifth-year seniors.
Each time he answers a question about a broad topic, he references the journey of the group as Grizzlies. After quarterback Reese Phillips suffered a season-ending ankle and leg injury in last week’s win, McKinley gave an eloquent response about cherishing every moment as a senior because it’s never known when your career might be finished.
“He took a backseat when he was a little younger,” UM third-year cornerbacks coach J.B. Hall said. “That’s the nature of the beast. We have some young guys who are playing right now and they are all looking at Ryan, looking at No. 2. He’s doing a great job of showing them exactly what we want as a coaching staff and what we want as a player.”
Embracing the moment in time that is the 11 guaranteed games of his senior season is a product of learning from those who mentored McKinley. He credits Dennard as a huge influence in his life and on his mentality. Before the season, the two talked about the importance of production and guidance in McKinley’s final campaign.
The full buy-in is part of the evolution. After redshirting in 2013 and playing sparingly in 2014, Montana underwent a coaching change. Mick Delaney retired, Williams left for Idaho, UM hired Bob Stitt and McKinley had a new position coach in Hall. In 2015, he again had trouble truly cracking the rotation. By last season, he started to turn the corner. This season, he’s blossomed into the upperclassman the coaching staff hoped he would.
“Ryan is a guy who really, really turned himself around,” Stitt said on Wednesday. “He’s done everything we’ve asked of him. He was a guy who had some rough patches early. Guys either go the positive way or the other way and I couldn’t be more proud of how Ryan has conducted himself on the field, off the field with his effort. He’s become a leader. He’s been just a pleasure to coach the last couple of years. I couldn’t be more proud of a player.”
In the locker room and in the public eye, McKinley has continued his comedic exploits. The journalism major wants to someday be a sports broadcaster. His quick whit and natural cheerfulness will serve him well.
“He’s the funny guy,” UM senior left tackle David Reese said. “He will give anyone a hard time no matter who you are. He treats everyone the same. We respect the guy and like him on our team.”
“Ryan is the man,” UM junior cornerback Markell Sanders added. “A lot of personality comes from him in our group. The way he plays, the way he acts out here, it’s great the way he leads us.”
McKinley made his first six career starts the first six games of last season with Nelson suspended. He produced, notching 24 tackles, two tackles for loss, snaring two interceptions and breaking up four passes. When Nelson returned, McKinley saw his playing time dwindle.
That motivated him entering his final off-season. He worked as hard as any Griz to set the pace during strength and conditioning coach Matt Nicholson’s rigorous program. His teammates took notice.
“This off-season, the dude was not messing around,” Reese said. “None of us seniors were but he was setting the pace, taking everything really serious in winter condo and spring ball and coming into summer. He’s been working hard for this.”
That hard work seems to be paying off as the Griz get set to endure the gauntlet of the Big Sky. McKinley had nine tackles and broke up two passes in UM’s 45-23 win over Valparaiso to open the season. He had four tackles and a pass breakup in Montana’s 63-7 loss at No. 6 Washington. He had three tackles and the interception he returned 53 yards for his first touchdown last week against Savannah State.
“He’s come a long way,” Montana defensive coordinator Jason Semore said. “He’s consistently producing. He’s the most consistent guy we have at corner. We are looking for a big year from Ryan McKinley. He knew that coming into the season. So far, he’s been that.”
“Ryan is a very, very competitive guy,” added Hall. “He wants to be in the right place at the right time every single play. With his determination, his effort to the ball has been at an all-time high since I’ve been here. That’s big-time because that’s what you have to have from a senior leader with a lot of experience, a guy who played a lot last year.”
As Montana’s top cover corner, he will be tasked with lining up against the No. 1 receiver on the opposing team each week. That task gets slightly easier with Eastern Washington’s star trio of Cooper Kupp, Kendrick Bourne and Shaq Hill gone to the professional ranks and Northern Arizona All-American Emmanuel Butler likely out for the season.
Still, McKinley has accepted UM’s cornerback saying of “suffer well.” He’s waited his turn to reach his final swan song season. Even when it’s over, he’ll continue to appreciate the memories he’s made wearing No. 2.
“The main thing is the relationships I’ve built on and off the field with these coaches, these players, this family,” McKinley said. “I’ve been able to create these great relationships and we can talk about anything. That’s something I’ll never forget when I move on from here.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.