Liberty senior turns a corner

It was an odd moment for Chet Allen, one he didn’t ever see happening.

The fourth-year Liberty football coach became frustrated with how practice was unfolding, so he told senior Jalen McKinney he was going to blow the whistle.

Allen made it clear that McKinney — not the coach — was going to huddle the team together and set them straight.

“I walked by, blew the whistle, and he said, ‘Everyone over here,’ “ Allen recalled. “He had a talk with them. I give him opportunities to do that, where I don’t have to do it and a coach doesn’t have to do it. If it comes from a player, it means a little bit more. He has run with it. After water breaks, he makes sure no one is walking, he makes sure that everyone’s helmet is buttoned. He makes sure that we’re ready to go, and he’s there pepping them up, not always tearing them down.”

So why is it so odd that Allen turns to a senior captain to put the team in its place? Well…

“This is coming from a kid who had to be told all the time to button his helmet and get on the jog,” Allen said. “Now he’s in the leadership role, where he’s making sure the freshmen and sophomores aren’t doing it. … It’s wild when it comes from Jalen because he was the one who was the most trouble.”

Times have changed, and so has McKinney.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound running back is much more than Liberty’s main offensive weapon. After a few years in which he was productive on the field — but not always with the right attitude — McKinney has turned a corner.

He said a different perspective was brought by being a senior.

“The biggest change I ever did was just focusing,” he said. “Instead of horsing around, playing with my friends and all that, I’m just sitting and actually focusing and taking in the game — just watching film and taking in all the new experiences to varsity football.”

After losing nearly 20 seniors from last year’s playoff team, including Trumbull County Player of the Year, Dra Rushton, McKinney is the now focus of the Leopards’ offense.

He blends power, speed and agility with a renewed attitude. All of those traits are critical for a young team looking to find its identity. The role is one a confident-yet-modest McKinney has looked forward to since he was a kid.

“It’s a long, long, long dream I’ve always dreamed of, being the captain of my high school team and all, but I never try to show it,” McKinney said. “I always try to humble myself because showing that (I’m the main guy) is being too big-headed. It can cause tempers to go the wrong way. I try to be humble, but I most definitely love it.”

McKinney also is one of the Leopards best defenders.

He moved back to linebacker after being Liberty’s top pass-rusher at defensive end the last two years. McKinney said he enjoys linebacker because he can roam all over the field instead of being confined to one side.

Allen likes the change as well, but he wants the high-energy McKinney to slow himself down. Instead of playing at “9,000 RPMs,” Allen wants him to shift down a gear.

The adjustment is a little bit like the one McKinney made personally. Once “a headache” for Allen and the Leopards, McKinney is now a respected captain with an eye on a scholarship, which is part of the reason he made the change — one that has benefited everyone involved.

“He’s definitely grown on me,” Allen said. “I took him to lunch right before (2-a-days) started, and I said to him, ‘Did you ever think we’d be here breaking bread together?’ And he goes, ‘Coach, I never thought I’d be here.’ I said, ‘Yep, me neither.’ So that just shows how much he’s grown and bought into what we do at our program.”