A short time after being hired as East Carolina’s new receivers coach in early March, Keith Gaither dropped in at Southwest Onslow High in Jacksonville while making the rounds of his new recruiting area.
Accompanied by Southwest coach and former ECU offensive lineman Charlie Dempsey, Gaither walked into the weight room where he immediately laid eyes on D’Angelo McKinnie.
“McKinnie was the first one at the squat rack,” Dempsey said. “Coach Gaither caught a glimpse of him and said, ‘Holy cow! Who is that guy?’ He immediately diverted his attention to D’Angelo.”
Gaither’s discovery that day led to an invite to ECU’s prospect camp June 11, a scholarship offer the next day and a verbal commitment from the 6-foot-4, 240-pound defensive lineman 24 hours later. McKinnie, who was the seventh player to join the Pirates’ recruiting Class of 2018, had only the lone scholarship offer, according to Dempsey.
“Not a lot of people knew about him,” Dempsey said. “He was just kind of starting to pop up on people’s radar because he only came here last May.”
McKinnie started his high school career about an hour Northeast of Jacksonville at James Kenan High in Warsaw. He was a two-year varsity player for Ken Avent Jr., who directed James Kenan to state 1-AA championships in 2007 and 2013. But McKinnie’s contributions were limited for James Kenan, in part because he had yet to hit an important growth spurt.
Dempsey had a similar reaction to ECU’s Gaither when McKinnie showed up at Southwest Onslow in May as a transfer student.
“I was excited to see a kid that size, and the frame he has to be as young as he is,” Dempsey said. “In my mind he had a Division I body, even as young as he was. I spoke to Coach Avent at James Kenan and one thing there was he (McKinnie) hadn’t developed yet.
“But he got over here and got in the weight room. He went from 215 to 240 now. I literally watched the kid grow in front of my eyes. But we saw in that very first practice he had a motor and went hard every snap.”
However, there was a learning curve for McKinnie.
“From the very beginning he’s been a competitor,” Dempsey said. “He wants to win. But we had to teach him a few things. Sometimes he wants to win so bad it came out as negative toward his teammates. It wasn’t anything he meant to do. But he wanted the guys to play as hard as he was. So he’s had to develop and learn to be a leader. He’s grown in that area as well, which really excites us for his senior year.”
When it comes to raw physical talent, Dempsey says McKinnie has the whole package.
“I think about last year and so many teams tried to get around him or run outside of him at defensive end,” Dempsey said. “At first, it may look like they have it. But he has such long arms and a long stride – he’s deceivingly fast – and he’ll run them down from behind. So many times that happened last year, when it looked like we had lost contact, and he grabs the guy down for a five-yard loss.”
McKinnie plays tight end and defensive end at Southwest Onslow, and has been recruited as a defensive end by the Pirates. But Dempsey believes McKinnie has potential at several positions, including offensive line.
Dempsey compares McKinnie’s potential to that of former Pirate Guy Whimper. Whimper, from Havelock, was recruited to ECU as a defensive end. He was eventually shifted to tight end midway through his junior year when injuries depleted the Pirates at that position. Then, as a senior, he moved to offensive tackle where he played well enough to be taken in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the New York Giants. Whimper spent eight seasons in the NFL and won a Super Bowl ring with the Giants in 2008.
“He’s got those long arms and the agility of a Guy Whimper,” Dempsey said. “Guy came in as a defensive end, but finally found a home over at offensive tackle. He could play some defensive end for them, or if he bulks up he could move down to a three technique (defensive tackle). But if he doesn’t keep up his speed or get it done on the defensive line he could make an easy transition to the offensive line. When he plays tight end for us he comes off the ball hard.”
McKinnie will be the first player Dempsey has coached to receive a scholarship to East Carolina since he came to Southwest Onslow in 2009.
“I try to stand back and let the kids make their own decision,” he said. “They all know I played for and I love the Pirates. But I want what is best for the kid. I don’t try to influence in any way.
“But once he (McKinnie) told me he had committed to East Carolina I was excited. I regularly go watch them play. Knowing now I’ll have a kid out there I coached makes it extra special.”
McKinnie isn’t the only Southwest player on ECU’s recruiting radar. Junior offensive lineman Derek Green, a 6-4, 320-pounder, has already received a scholarship offer from Virginia, according to Dempsey. But the Pirates are showing interest as well.