Early enrollee Shai McKenzie might be the most intriguing recruit in Tech's 2014 class. McKenzie is a 5-11, 215 pound running back from Washington, Pennsylvania—a suburb of Pittsburgh. He put up astronomical numbers at Washington High School before tearing his ACL early his senior season. As a junior, he nearly eclipsed Rushel Shell's WPIAL single-season rushing record with 2,689 yards and 42 touchdowns. As a senior, McKenzie rushed for 647 yards and 11 touchdowns. He averaged a whopping 37.4 yards per score during his junior year which climbed to 46.2 yards per touchdown last season. By all accounts I've read, McKenzie's rehabilitation of his knee injury is progressing well. After committing to the Hokies over the hometown Pitt Panthers, Craig Meyer of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote, "Since suffering the injury, McKenzie has had surgery and rehabilitation. He said trainers have been impressed with his progress and he expects to be ready for the start of the 2014 season." Enrolling early will give McKenzie full time access to the Hokies physical therapy and rehabilitation team.
McKenzie's film is impressive, seemingly one long touchdown run after another. Waiting for him to show his stuff in Blacksburg will be tough, even though making sure his knee is one-hundred percent healed before contact is the right way for Tech to proceed. Pittsburgh area high school football has the reputation for being outstanding, but on most of the long runs, he isn't even touched so it is really difficult to ascertain how physical he is. However, to his credit many of those long runs stem from how he patiently sets up blocks, changes speeds, and then when he gets an angle cranks it into a second gear.
McKenzie runs mostly out of the I formation, with a mix of an odd wishbone set. He aligns deep, similar to the way that Auburn utilized Trey Mason under Loeffler. He takes toss sweeps and zone leads, gets to the line, and then patiently works down the line (with pads always facing north-south). His ability to slow down and speed up wreaks havoc with pursuit angles. His legs are huge, and he runs through arm tackles without breaking stride. He loves to slow down to get the defender to commit and then suddenly increase his speed to leave the defender on his belly. While he has a shorter stride and he is a more patient runner, he definitely has a streak of Kevin Jones. KJ loved to dead leg guys and bounce outside as well. Michael Holmes also had a similar running style, but was not anywhere near as fast at top speed as Jones or McKenzie. Did I say Kevin Jones? You decide.
Here are a couple of highlights that show off his primary strengths. Please note, you see McKenzie use the same moves again and again, so it is very easy to point out his strengths.
To start let's take a look at McKenzie running the toss sweep. Most of his highlight reel runs come off the sweep play, and he benefits from having an excellent fullback who does a great job of squaring up on defenders to set the edge. The fullback is good enough that I wouldn't be opposed to him getting a preferred walk on or scholarship offer.
The offense zone blocks to the right, with a crack block by the slot receiver. The slot man misses his block, and the fullback kicks him out to set the edge. McKenzie actually reads the play wrong and should cut inside the block of the fullback, so he finds himself one on one with the unblocked corner. Instead, he sells the inside fake and then bounces back outside, breaking the corner's ankles. He then crosses up the linebacker and cuts inside him. The slower pace lets the linebacker over run the play, then he changes pace to blow by the tackler.
I've established that McKenzie has terrific speed, with the ability to change gears, and wiggle to shake tackles. What's tricky however, is to find a highlight where the defense actually gets a paw on him. Let's take a look at one.
Washington runs a lead draw, where the line zone blocks to the inside right gap. The fullback leads into the interior, with the quarterback reversing out and giving the ball on a delayed handoff to McKenzie. The run is designed to go right up the middle, but McKenzie has the vision to see that the outside linebacker to his right has bitten too far inside, leaving him vulnerable to the crack back by the slot receiver. He also feels pressure from the right defensive tackle that beats the scoop block of the left tackle. Unlike Marshawn Williams, whose jump cut is violently to the outside, McKenzie smoothly changes direction, moves laterally, and then turns back up field. He then increases speed to gain an angle on the first tackler. He gives a little dead leg and step to the outside to beat the second guy. He cuts behind a potential third tackle and starts to move east-west. He runs through a fourth tackle. He stiff arms the fifth potential tackler. He then stops on a dime and stiff arms a sixth tackler and finally lopes into the end zone. I mean... what the hell can you say about that?
Most of my concerns about McKenzie stem more from what I don't know about him than what I do know. The film I watched doesn't include clips of him pass blocking or going out into patterns. I don't have tape of him breaking through tackles delivered by players of equal size and ability like with Marshawn Williams. And it's an unfortunate reality that his knee is a variable. However, his upside, based purely from what I watched on film, is unlimited. He could be a game breaking tailback.
Normal rehabilitation time for an ACL tear without significant damage to other ligaments is 6 to 9 months. I would not expect to see McKenzie in pads any in the spring, and with Williams added to the depth already available at tailback, I hope that the coaching staff is patient and allows McKenzie to fully rehab. He looks like he could really be a star in Blacksburg.