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FIU Panthers cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon’s rocky road turning into straight path

FIU cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon prepares to tackle Middle Tennessee State’s Jeremiah Bryson.
FIU cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon prepares to tackle Middle Tennessee State’s Jeremiah Bryson. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

The FIU career of senior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon can seem as if it’s lasted forever, while at the same time feel as if it’s just getting started.

That dichotomy comes from McKinnon being very visible on special teams and as a backup cornerback as a freshman in 2012; being conspicuous by his absence while suspended from the program by coach Ron Turner for part of a tumultuous 2013; then a reset in 2014, as he became a regular starter; and, now, a senior cornerstone of FIU’s defense.

“[Coach Turner] wanted the best for me and I realized that,” said McKinnon, who will graduate in June with a degree in sports management. “He taught me to be better on and off the field. What I do off the field is going to correspond to what’s on the field. He helped me in a great way to somewhat become a man.”

Asked when he saw McKinnon turn the corner, Turner said, “He’s not around it yet, but he’s gotten a hell of a lot better as far as accountability and everything we ask him to do.”

McKinnon credits former defensive coordinator Josh Conklin, who “helped me with man coverage. It was more experience, getting out there and getting comfortable with the scheme. I could play loose and be me out there.”

Also, McKinnon’s coverage translates into interceptions, three in his last five games. Before, his presence just seemed to make regular catches exceptional.

“I’ve been working after practice with my cousin, Richard Leonard, [wider receiver] teammates Clinton Taylor and Thomas Owens with numerous ball skills, such as over the shoulders, and working the Juggs machine, too,” McKinnon said.

McKinnon and Leonard — FIU’s version of Bo and Luke Duke — start together now, just as they did when they played together for the Richmond Giants Optimist football team.

“We’re close. We could be like brothers,” McKinnon said. “I’d stay the night at his house a lot. We used to do all the cookouts and stuff.”

Each saw his FIU football future threatened in 2013. As Leonard was in the process of losing his academic eligibility, McKinnon got into trouble over a parking lot altercation (charges were dropped with no action) in February. He started the season opener against Maryland, but got benched for the second game.

Turner suspended McKinnon and Leonard, who had been practicing with the team, at midseason for violating team rules.

“He went through a tough situation and I went through a tough situation,” McKinnon said. “We used to sit down, talk to each other and saying ‘We have to be better.’”

They made it back to where they provided all the scoring in the Panthers’ 2014 season-ending loss to North Texas. Leonard returned a punt for a touchdown in the first quarter, then McKinnon returned an interception for a touchdown in the second.

“He’s on time for everything, doing what he’s supposed to do, taking care of business in the classroom and being accountable on the field,” Turner continued. “Doing his assignments and not doing his own thing. He’s being a team player, on and off the field.”

McKinnon said, “Right now, we want to finish best in the nation in defense. It’s about the whole defense.”

David J. Neal: 305-376-3559, @DavidJNeal

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