On this 27th day of December in the calendar year of 2008, I hereby declare Kenny McKinley as the greatest receiver in the history of South Carolina football.
Before screaming about Sterling Sharpe or Sidney Rice or Troy Williamson --- all outstanding receivers and worthy of high accolades --- hear me out on this one.
After studying the records of USC’s best, and gaining insight from a couple of former players who have seen all of them play, I have concluded that McKinley had the most outstanding USC career.
Of all USC’s great receivers over the years, none matched McKinley in terms of consistent play over an entire career. It is the reason he stands today, with one Outback Bowl game remaining in his illustrious career, as the school’s all-time leader in catches with 201 and receiving yards with 2,695.
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McKinley, of course, gets Steve Spurrier’s endorsement, if not as USC’s best ever at least as one of the coach’s pets. While Spurrier certainly has not seen many of USC’s top receivers play, he has coached a few top-level ones in his days at Duke and Florida and you would think he knows a great one when he sees one.
“Kenny is one of my all-time favorite receivers I’ve been fortunate to coach over the years,” Spurrier said. “He’s quick. He knows how to get open. He is an excellent receiver, catcher of the ball. He’ll keep playing several more years in the NFL.”
If playing in the NFL was part of the criteria for determining USC’s best receiver, there would be no debate. Sharpe was a two-time all-pro during his sterling seven-year NFL career.
This is not about professional careers or even pro potential. This is about which player had the very best career at USC. You can make a case for any of several receivers as the best ever.
Fred Zeigler might have been the top possession receiver of the bunch, and you can’t discount anyone who is a two-time all-league performer . . . even if it was in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Robert Brooks had blazing speed, good enough to win the Metro Conference 110 high hurdles in 14.19 seconds in 1991.
Zola Davis debuted with 58 catches for 911 yards and was runnerup to LSU running back Kevin Faulk for SEC freshman of the year, but never matched those numbers the remainder of his USC career. Jermale Kelly was consistently solid but never truly outstanding.
Sidney Rice was unmatched in USC history when it comes to talent, but he stuck around for only two seasons before turning pro. That hurt Troy Williamson’s cause as well because he left after three seasons.
So, really, the debate comes down to McKinley or Sharpe.
Todd Ellis and Tommy Suggs now man the USC radio booth as play-by-play and color commentators, respectively. Both played quarterback at USC, and both have watched the careers of McKinley and Sharpe.
The two said Sharpe was USC’s best once he caught the ball. Sharpe was outstanding with the ball in his hands and could easily have been a running back at USC. He sometimes played slot receiver, thus making him the Percy Harvin of yesteryear, capable of beating a team with his legs as well as his hands.
One could argue that Sharpe was the better receiver than McKinley because his jersey No. 2 is retired. I would argue that there is some question about whether Sharpe’s jersey should be retired. He had two truly amazing seasons (136 catches for 2,021 yards and 15 touchdowns).
If two super seasons are the standard for retiring a player’s jersey number, then several others qualify for the honor. Rice’s No. 4 and McKinley’s No. 11 come to mind. Rice totaled 142 catches for 2,233 yards and a school-record 23 touchdowns in his two seasons. McKinley put up 128 catches for 1,848 and 14 touchdowns in his two best seasons.
What separates McKinley from the others is his other two seasons. Only a hamstring injury that slowed him for at least half of the current season prevented McKinley from putting up numbers far superior to the rest.
There was another difference between Sharpe and McKinley.
“Kenny can break you down pretty good with his routes, but he does not give you that wow factor,” Ellis said. “Kenny broke you down by running routes and getting open, catching tough ones over the middle.”
McKinley has been blue collar throughout his career.
“Kenny is one of those receivers who can kind of go unnoticed if you’re not careful, but all of the sudden he’s caught 10 passes,” Suggs said. “Sometimes you don’t notice him. He kind of sneaks up on you. He doesn’t have burning speed, he doesn’t have the great physical presence on the field. He just runs patterns and makes catches.”
It’s kind of the way McKinley’s career went. He had only seven games (compared to 10 for Sharpe) where he topped 100 yards in receiving. Yet McKinley broke Sharpe’s and Kelly’s USC record by catching at least one pass in 42 consecutive games.
In the end, McKinley’s consistency left him as USC’s all-time leader in receptions and yardage. He also will close his career in the Outback Bowl as USC’s best-ever receiver.