School starts for UCLA players this week, but the learning curve is going to be steeper for some players than others. Some have been here for years, while some have been here for just a couple of months.
The player with the biggest learning curve, though, continues to be defensive end Takkarist McKinley. The junior college transfer signed his letter of intent with the Bruins in mid-September and played in his first collegiate game last week against Arizona State.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound McKinley showed promising flashes, like a big hit on a kickoff, but also showed his inexperience at times.
"He showed a lot of speed," Coach Jim Mora said. "Obviously his inexperience showed up, he didn't know whether to get into a three-point or two-point stance at times. … He's got a real willingness to learn, really wants to be a good player, and he's got something that nobody can coach — that raw burst of explosiveness and speed off the edge. We need that. We're missing that a little bit right now."
Added McKinley: "It's just a whole new level. In JC and high school, people compete, but here, they're much stronger, faster, bigger, athletic. I'm just trying to get adjusted to the next level and do the best I can do."
It's been a long journey for the sophomore.
McKinley originally committed to California in 2012, but was ruled a non-qualifier by the NCAA. He then went to Contra Costa College for the 2013 season, where he recorded 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. Most recruiting websites had him ranked as one of the top junior-college transfers in the nation after his freshman year.
Fully expecting to finish the 2014 season and his two years of junior-college eligibility at Contra Costa, McKinley kept in contact with Bruin defensive line coach Angus McClure, just in case something worked out.
According to McKinley, McClure is the only reason the defensive end is able to play this season because he noticed a mistake in the player's transcript.
The transcript made McKinley look like a non-qualifier, but it was missing summer school classes that he'd completed. Once those classes got added, McKinley became a qualifier and was able to leave right away. McClure pushed him to explore the discrepancy, to go back to his high school and district, and get the NCAA to grant him the eligibility he should have had all along.
Once McKinley got a favorable ruling, other college coaches began calling to recruit him, but McKinley felt loyal to McClure and stuck with the Bruins.
"I feel like everything happens for a reason," he said. "Maybe it wasn't meant for me to go to Cal. Maybe it was meant for me to be a Bruin. There was nothing I could do, so I took it to the junior college, did the best I could do there, improved my grades and had a pretty good season. I just had to move on, there was nothing I could do about it. I got a second opportunity at UCLA to play for an amazing program."
McKinley says the Division I game is obviously much faster and stronger, and that since he wasn't expected to play at this level earlier, there's going to be a learning curve. He's spent most of his career in a two-point stance and will be asked to play with his hand on the ground. It's not going to be easy, but then again, neither was getting to UCLA in the first place.
"It's more gap defending than anything," he said. "It's not like last year, when [former UCLA linebacker Anthony] Barr was just rushing and stuff like that. It's more being disciplined, so I'm just trying to help and bring much intensity and hard work as I can to make myself better. It's going to take time, but I'm slowly, slowly getting better."