Mississippi State co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Chris Wilson said this week if the Bulldogs are to be one of the elite teams in the Southeastern Conference, then players like Johnathan McKenzie has to be a part of making it happen.
McKenzie, who prepped at Starkville Academy, is listed second on the MSU depth chart at defensive end behind All-Southeastern Conference performer Pernell McPhee.
That doesn't mean that McKenzie's role on defense is any less important in Wilson's mind.
He wants his unit to be two-deep across the line which will make a difference as a game progresses.
"I'm hoping to get (McKenzie) in there as much as we can," Wilson said. "When you look at a game, that's the difference between an average team and a good team. The starting 11 for an average team is as good as anybody else, but in the fourth quarter, the drop off is significant when you get those two's in there. We've got a good group of two's and we're developing them."
McKenzie said Wilson and the strength coaches have done a good job of getting him bigger, stronger and faster. Those are the areas where he's improved since his high school days with the Volunteers.
"Our football coaches are definitely teaching me a lot of stuff, but I've still got a lot to work on," McKenzie said.
Wilson said the Johnathan McKenzie of the spring and the Johnathan McKenzie of preseason camp are "like night and day."
"He's beginning to have so much more awareness in our scheme and how people are trying to attack us," Wilson said. " One thing about Johnathan, he's very smart so what we try to do every day is improve our football I.Q. and that's the biggest thing he's working on."
McKenzie, who sported a perfect grade point average of 4.0 during his time at Starkville Academy, recorded 13 sacks in his senior year with the Vols.
After redshirting his first season at MSU, McKenzie has adjusted from the style of former defensive line coach David Turner to Wilson.
"Coach Wilson is different than coach Turner was and we're coming around slowly," McKenzie said. "It's less reading and more coming off the ball."
Although he knows there have been strides made, McKenzie understands there's still much to work on.
"(The coaches) see some good things, but I've still got a ways to go before they feel confident about putting me in," McKenzie said.
The Bulldogs are about to wrap-up training camp at the South Farm and McKenzie said the team has been getting down to the business of football.
"It's good to not worry about classes yet and just study film, watch football, lift weights and you get real close to your teammates."
McKenzie is happy to have a player like McPhee in his corner and calls him "real unselfish" and "always willing to help." Wilson said McPhee is "a great guy to learn from."
McPhee has no problem instructing McKenzie and showing him the ropes because it's going to make the team better.
Some of the things McPhee is teaching McKenzie is staying low, keeping his shoulder pads down and remaining squared up.
"He's learning the fundamentals of the game," McPhee said. "He's learning to focus his eyes on the right place instead of the wrong place."
McPhee said it's been important during the sessions at South Farm the last week to go at a steady pace and not try to do too much.
"There are little things I try to tell (McKenzie) to work on every day," McPhee said. "The main thing is work on your footwork. Coach (Wilson) is going to get mad at you, but keep working on your footwork. The next day you can work on getting off the ball and next day you can work on keeping your pads square.
"You can't go out there and work on everything at one time. That's why we've got camp."
The things Wilson wants the defensive linemen to use most is their strength and explosiveness.
"I really never talk about speed or size as much as some of the other coaches because of what we do, but they have to be explosive and they've got to be strong guys," Wilson said. "(MSU strength coach) Matt Balis is as good as anybody in the country in doing that."