The first time Verone McKinley saw a game at Autzen Stadium, he was on the field against Bowling Green.
The cornerback committed to Willie Taggart at Oregon's “Saturday Night Live” camp in July of last year and waited until after the season to take his official visit. By the time he returned to see the Ducks during Las Vegas Bowl practices, Taggart was gone and replaced by Mario Cristobal.
“I felt like coach Cristobal was doing great things here so I trusted him,” McKinley said. “I trusted coach (Jim) Leavitt too. Oregon was different with the facilities and campus and people. It felt like it was the best fit for me and my family and my skill set.”
McKinley arrived at Oregon for spring practice to earn playing time as a true freshman at an area of need for the Ducks. He has played nickelback in Oregon’s first two games and had a tackle against both Bowling Green and Portland State.
“I enjoyed getting out there and I am hungry for more,” McKinley said. “I am ready for it. I know Pac-12 play is coming up soon and I will be used at cornerback and nickel, so I will be ready when they call me.”
The 5-foot-10, 183-pound McKinley has been studying senior safety Ugochukwu Amadi, who arrived at Oregon as a cornerback.
“I am trying to make an impact and help the team any way I can,” McKinley said. “At nickel, you have to know what the cornerback does and what the safety does and you still have to know where all your help is. Playing nickel, with my feet and football IQ, they put me there to mimic Ugo.”
McKinley’s feet quickly caught the attention of his head coach.
“Verone is quick, athletic and fast,” Cristobal said. “He has real quick feet. He’s on you in a hurry.”
McKinley and Kahlef Hailassie were the two prep cornerbacks in Cristobal’s first recruiting class. The 6-2 Hailassie brings a different look than McKinley, but the two have some similar skills.
“Both of those guys can speed turn and have catch-up speed and closing speed,” Cristobal said. “They redirect well and can open their hips and make tackles in space. I told those guys, it is a little different here because of our lack of depth. We almost have to bypass your freshman year. We have to make you a sophomore throughout the course of the summer, camp and the first few games. They are totally into it and working at it. They are imperfect, but willing to learn so we are content with their progress so far.”
McKinley, Hailassie and junior-college transfer Haki Woods are the only cornerbacks on scholarship behind sophomore starters Thomas Graham and Deommodore Lenoir.
“As many snaps as we can get them now will be for the best so we can find out exactly what they can do and how they can help us this season,” Oregon co-defensive coordinator Keith Heyward said.
McKinley got an early start by participating in spring practices.
“Being here for the spring helped me adjust to the speed and understand the defense,” McKinley said. “I feel like I know the defense like the back of my hand. Then I had a good fall camp and took it into the season to try and get better each day.”
Lenoir and Graham are the veterans at the position after playing last season as true freshmen.
“We are a close group,” McKinley said of the cornerbacks. “We don’t talk about who is the starter and who is on the second team. We just push each other and compete every day.”