Projected second-round pick CB Keith McGill reflects on journey to NFL

The Utah cornerback took a year off before playing ball in the JuCo ranks. Now he's on the cusp of his dream playing in the NFL.

Keith McGill, 25, started all 12 games for Utah in 2013.

Brian Spurlock / USA TODAY Sports

When former Utah cornerback Keith McGill graduated from high school his priority was to help provide for his family. With less than a month until the NFL Draft, the projected second-round pick often reflects on the journey and how he got here.

Instead of immediately jumping at the first opportunity to play college football, McGill took a job at Disneyland, working as a parking attendant. Not long after, a conversation with his father would lead him to enroll into a school. Not a university, but a trade school. McGill enrolled at UTI Tech, an automotive and mechanic institution. For a year-and-a-half, McGill honed his craft and ultimately landed a job at an automotive shop.

“I keep hearing that it’s an amazing story, but for me it was just a part of life,” McGill told in a telephone interview. “It was another stepping stone, another hurdle. I learned everything I need to know about cars. I was one of those guys who wanted to be in the “Fast and Furious” movies when they were coming out. To me, I had no problem doing what I was doing. It wasn’t punishment. I was pretty happy about doing it. My priority was to help my family.”

It wasn’t until January 2009 when McGill had the itch to play football again. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder attended Cerritos College where he made an instant impact, intercepting 23 passes and leading his team to back-to-back conference championships.

While he fielded offers from several D1 schools, McGill chose to play at Utah. The level of competition was certainly a steep adjustment, but he earned playing time right away. Five games into the season, McGill tore his labrum, requiring season-ending surgery. The rehab took longer than expected and McGill wanted to take his time to properly recover from the injury. He decided to get a medical redshirt for his junior season in 2012.

“Everybody rushes to come back, but that’s something you have to look at,” McGill said. “You can rush back and help your team for four months or you can take your time to get your shoulder strong, stable and get your range of motion back. You help your team the following year and you help yourself in the next level. I’m thankful I did that.”

McGill, 25, and his big frame made him a natural fit at the safety position, but the coaching staff saw something unique in his skillset. Head coach Kyle Whittingham had success transforming Sean Smith, who currently plays with the Chiefs, into a cornerback from a safety. Whittingham noticed many of the same attribututes in McGill.

“He’s pretty big,” McGill said of Smith. “They saw a lot of him in me as far as our athletic builds and other attributes. They also felt it would be good for the team because a lot of receivers in the Pac-12 are over six feet. They thought having another advantage would be good.”

The change in position took some time. Instead of constantly playing downhill, McGill was forced to learn to play tight in space and perfect his backpedal.

“The move from safety to corner was interesting,” McGill said. “Coming into spring ball, it was kind of weird. I just wanted to press people. Being a big body, people were looking at me to start. I was just trying to fulfill that role and try to learn the position as fast as possible. It’s a totally different technique that you have to learn. I never played the position before so I had to buy into what my coaches were telling me and know that it was for the greater good of the team and myself.”

It was a natural fit. McGill was able to jam bigger receivers off the line and had the speed to keep up with them downfield.

Besides leading the conference in pass breakups and making a splash at the Senior Bowl by intercepting a pass, McGill proved that he is a versatile player who can learn on the fly. He was matched against top-line competition on a weekly basis and held his own.

“In the Pac-12, it’s a pass-first league,” McGill said. “The ball is always in the air. I think that going against receivers like [Oregon State’s] Brandin Cooks, [USC’s] Marqise Lee, [Oregon’s] Josh Huff, [Colorado’s] Paul Richardson and [Arizona State’s] Jaelen Strong, those are pretty big names in my opinion. I did great against everybody. None of those guys scored on me.”

Employing bigger cornerbacks is a model that the NFL is certainly adopting, too. Ever since the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, teams have been looking to find ways to mirror The Legion of Boom, which is the nickname for Seattle’s towering secondary.

“I think it has to do with how offenses are trying to get bigger receivers,” McGill said. “It’s just the answer for them. There are a lot of bigger receivers in the NFL and there are not that many big corners out there. I can probably list only five who are 6-2 and above, if that. I just think it’s an answer for them at the line of scrimmage. If you have the speed to keep up with them that helps you too.”

McGill’s size and blue-collar mentality will certain lend itself to the next level. If he has it his way, he’ll get an opportunity to compete for a starting job right away and just go to work like he has before.

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