Originally created 01/03/01

Florida, Miami have solid protection



NEW ORLEANS -- Miami's Ken Dorsey doesn't like the thought of dropping back to pass without Bryant McKinnie protecting his back.

Dorsey might have to do it next season. Florida's Rex Grossman is facing a similar problem if Kenyatta Walker goes for the NFL draft.

McKinnie and Walker, both juniors, anchor two of the best offensive lines in the country. And along with Miami's Joaquin Gonzalez and Florida's Mike Pearson, the four tackles could be the key to Tuesday night's game between the second-ranked Hurricanes and the No. 7 Gators.

"I'm sure we'll play a huge part," Gonzalez said. "For both teams, the tackles are going to be key in the running game and especially in the passing game."

The four tackles are good, and each of them has become a success story in just a short amount of time.

McKinnie may be the best.

The 6-foot-9, 330-pound left tackle hasn't given up a sack. Not this season. Not in his career. Not ever. Not bad for someone who played bass drum in high school and has played football for just five years.

McKinnie's long arms make it tough for defensive linemen to get around him. His quick feet make it easy for his to pick up line stunts. And his sheer size makes it nearly impossible to push him around.

He held Florida State's Jamal Reynolds, an All-American, without a sack or a tackle in the Hurricanes' 27-24 win over the Seminoles in October.

"He could potentially be a first-round draft choice as an offensive left tackle," Hurricanes coach Butch Davis said. "He's massive and he's quick, but he's still a puppy."

McKinnie joined the football team as a high school junior in Woodbury, N.J., and made an instant impact on defense. He signed with Iowa in 1997 but was academically ineligible and enrolled at Lackawanna Junior College in Scranton, Pa., where he was quickly moved to offense and excelled at pass blocking.

That's continued Miami, where the biggest challenge now might be convincing McKinnie to stay another season.

"We're going to have to take him to one or two meals to get him to stick around," Dorsey said. "That might be an expensive meal, but one that I wouldn't mind paying for if it means another year of him."

Grossman may want to make the same offer to Walker, the Gators' 6-5, 302-pound right tackle who will be one of the first offensive linemen taken if he decides to leave Florida a year early.

Spurned in efforts to move to the left side of the line, Walker instead thrived on the right and received the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the Southeastern Conference's best blocker.

"Am I definitely leaving? Maybe," Walker said this week.

The other two tackles re certain to be back.

Pearson had a standout sophomore season at left tackle for Florida despite a preseason injury that could have sidelined him for an entire year. But the 6-7, 291-pound Pearson was ready for the season opener and is one of only five Gators to start all 12 games.

Gonzalez, a 6-foot-5, 290-pound junior, has started all 34 games since his freshman season for the Hurricanes. He turned down several Ivy League schools, including Harvard, Yale and Columbia, to walk on at Miami in 1997, and earned his scholarship after his first season. He has given up just two sacks in the last two seasons.

Now all four tackles have a chance to showcase their skills in front of a national audience at the Sugar Bowl. It could pay off in their futures.

"If you're an NFL scout and you need a tackle, this seems like the right place to be," Pearson said.