DeKALB — When redshirt sophomore cornerback Jalen McKie made a couple of big plays against the University of Akron last season, it didn’t just help the Huskies to a 36-26 win; it was also a glimpse into what was to come.
In that game, McKie blocked an extra point and returned it 80 yards for a two-point conversion, then later intercepted two passes in the fourth quarter, taking one of those back 23 yards for a score. Those efforts earned him MAC West Division Defensive Player of the Week honors for the week of Nov. 5.
This season, McKie is fourth on the squad in tackles with 16. He also leads the Huskies in passes defended with four in what is turning out to be a breakout year for the redshirt sophomore from Gurnee.
“I’m really feeling confident,” McKie said. “I got a lot of experience playing last year, and this year I’m more relaxed and comfortable.”
After playing in 14 games last season and making two starts, McKie set his sights on the starting lineup in 2019. The 5-foot-8, 180-pound cornerback earned one of the starting spots over the summer and has made a huge impact on a defense riddled with injuries.
Just three games into this season, McKie has already added to his highlight reel. In the Aug. 31 season opener against Illinois State University, he took a pass back 32 yards for a score to earn his second MAC West Division Defensive Player of the Week for the week of Sept. 2. McKie also blocked two kicks and had two outstanding plays in the secondary Sept. 14 against the University of Nebraska, then followed that up with seven tackles this past Saturday against Vanderbilt University.
“Definitely, my goal was to be a starter,” McKie said. “Every day during the off-season, and then during summer camp, I was going out there to try and be the best player I could be for this team. We all want to be great, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get that done.”
At 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds as a senior at Waukegan High School, McKie wasn’t highly recruited but became interested in NIU after watching the Huskies success over the course of the last decade and wanted to be a part of the program. Since coming to NIU he has gone from being a walk-on, to receiving a scholarship, to cracking the starting lineup and becoming a valuable member of the defense.
Though he’s had success, his coach wants him to stick with the mentality that has brought him this far.
“He’s playing good football,” Head Coach Thomas Hammock said. “When I arrived at NIU he had gotten to the point where he had played a few games, but I still want him to remember to keep the same underdog mentality he had when he walked into this program, to remember that he wasn’t good enough to get a scholarship. If he keeps that mentality, it’s going to show up in his play week-to-week.”
McKie probably doesn’t need those kinds of reminders since he grew up around someone who had beaten the odds and carved out a solid career in the National Football League. His dad, Jason McKie, had been undrafted out of Temple University but became a productive fullback in the NFL, spending seven years with the Bears from 2003-09.
Used mostly as a blocking back for Matt Forte, Jason’s most productive season was in 2006, when he started all 16 games for the Bears and caught 25 passes for 162 yards, including two catches for eight yards in the Bears’ 29-17 loss to Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLI.
“My dad had a ton of influence on me,” Jalen said. “He taught me the rights and wrongs of the game. He’s the reason I am here today, and I can’t thank him enough. He made it to the highest level possible, and I take every bit of advice he gives me and apply that to what I do on the field.”
Jalen has memories of that Bears season and recalls plenty of Sundays when he would watch his dad play on television, particularly the Super Bowl.
His father continues to set an example through the Jason McKie Foundation which provides aid and emergency support to military families. Jalen’s grandfather, Mac McKie, spent 22 years in the Air Force, and helping members of the military is something that is ingrained in the entire McKie family.
“(Jason) says you always want to give back, especially to everyone who supports you in the community,” Jalen said. “My dad is really into the military, and believes we need to give back to [it] because [it] protects our freedom and protects our country. He wants to show [members of the military] that he appreciates everything they do.”
Jalen believes in service as well, and participates in team community service activities in the DeKalb area. Some of the projects Jalen has been involved with include: helping at Southeast Elementary School Family Fun Fairs, setting up and tearing down a Huskie womens’ track meet, working with Gleaners Food Bank at the Motor City Bowl putting together bags of food for the less fortunate of the Detroit area and participating in the Camp Power program where he played football with underprivileged youth from the DeKalb-Sycamore area.
“Hammock is really into serving the community,” Jalen said. “So we try to do what we can to give back.”
McKie and the Huskies will be back at home for the first time since the season opener when they begin MAC play with a date with Ball State at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Huskie Stadium.