College Sports

Sharpe shooter

USC wide receiver Kenny McKinley picks up short yardage during a scoreless first quarter as the Gamecocks take on N.C. State at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia on Aug. 28.
USC wide receiver Kenny McKinley picks up short yardage during a scoreless first quarter as the Gamecocks take on N.C. State at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia on Aug. 28.

COLUMBIA -- Kenny McKinley's knowledge of Sterling Sharpe is hazy, like the black-and-white photo of Sharpe that looks down on the USC football team from a wall in the weight room.

Sharpe's playing career was over by the time McKinley, growing up in the Atlanta area, started watching football. McKinley was more familiar with Shannon Sharpe and knew Sterling, that guy analyzing the NFL on TV, was his brother.

Even when he committed to play at USC, McKinley had no idea he would be following in Sterling's footsteps as a receiver at USC. Soon, that changed.

"When I got here, I soon heard about him, read about him and always (have) seen his name and jersey around the stadium," McKinley said. "When you're around Carolina football, you've got to know the guys who have come before you."

Starting next season, Gamecocks players will be reading and learning about McKinley.

The senior is four catches from breaking Sharpe's school record of 169 career receptions. McKinley and Sharpe have not met. Sharpe, who has kept his distance from the school he played for from 1983-1987, wishes McKinley well.

"I don't know Kenny's career that well," Sharpe said in an e-mail. "He must have something that has allowed him to catch that many passes, and I guess he has been mostly healthy until now. From way away, he seems like a good football player."

Sharpe also holds the USC record with 2,497 career receiving yards. McKinley has 2,257.

McKinley holds the USC record for consecutive games played with a catch with 36, surpassing the mark of 34 held by Sharpe and Jermale Kelly (1997-2000).

McKinley said it would be "amazing" to overtake Sharpe in the record book. McKinley came to USC after playing quarterback in high school and was overshadowed his first two years by Sidney Rice.

When Rice left early for the NFL, McKinley became the go-to receiver. McKinley does not seem likely to be drafted as high as Rice (second round) or Sharpe (first round, seventh overall), but as a collegian, McKinley has excelled.

Todd Ellis, USC's quarterback during Sharpe's final two seasons and the Gamecocks' current radio announcer, sees similarities between the two.

Durability is the main one. The hamstring injury that forced McKinley to miss three games this season was his first significant injury at USC. McKinley has held up well, despite a slight frame (6-0, 182 pounds). Sharpe was bigger -- and just as tough.

"Kenny McKinley, from day one here, didn't have every skill that Sterling Sharpe has, but he had the toughness there, and I see that in both those guys," Ellis said. "They can catch the crossing routes, the underneath routes, the goal-line fades, the deep balls, and so that shows to me that they're very, very versatile."

Sharpe's best skill was his ability to gain yards after the catch. Ellis said McKinley comes close to matching Sharpe in that regard.

Neither Sharpe nor McKinley seem to be me-first receivers. Although Sharpe always wanted the ball, Ellis said, he never came into the huddle and complained, and he stood up for his teammates.

McKinley gives off the same vibe. When asked about Sharpe's record, he credits the linemen and quarterback "who put me past him, if I get the record."

USC-Kentucky scouting report

b>Three keys to the game

Take advantage of scoring chances: Points figure to be at a premium in a game featuring two of the top defenses in the country. Kentucky leads the nation in scoring defense, allowing 7.8 points per game, as well as red-zone defense. Opponents have cracked the Wildcats' 20-yard line six times in five games and come away with two field goals. USC needs to be more creative in short-yardage situations, mixing in play-action and misdirection runs with the quarterback sneaks.

Win the field position game: Gamecocks punter and former York Comprehensive High standout Spencer Lanning has three punts in the past three games. The inactivity might have contributed to Lanning's 9-yard shank last week at Ole Miss. USC is last in the SEC and near the bottom nationally with a net punting average of 31.6 yards, a figure inflated by four touchbacks. Lanning must get more air under his punts or angle them toward the sideline to keep the Wildcats backed up.

Don't let Lyons roar: Kentucky lost several of its top offensive playmakers to graduation, although senior receiver Dicky Lyons Jr. has tried to pick up the slack. Lyons leads the SEC with 31 catches, an average of 6.2 a game. Although most of Lyons' receptions have come on short routes -- covering an average of 8.1 yards per catch -- the 5-11, 190-pounder is dangerous after the catch, as well as on punt returns.

Key matchup

QB Chris Smelley vs. CB Trevard Lindley

About Smelley: A week after hearing boos at Williams-Brice Stadium, Smelley responded in a big way in a 31-24 win at Ole Miss. The right-hander threw for a career-high 327 yards and three touchdowns and was named the SEC's offensive player of the week.

How he'll win the matchup: Earlier this season, Smelley had a tendency to lock in on one receiver rather than go through his progressions. That could get him in trouble against Lindley. If Smelley gets time in the pocket and surveys the whole field, he should be able to build on last week's performance.

Key number: 63.1 -- Smelley's completion percentage, which ranks second in the SEC behind Mississippi State's Tyson Lee (66.2 percent).

About Lindley: The 6-0, 175-pound junior is part of a defense that ranks third nationally against the pass. Lindley, a native of Hiram, Ga., has two interceptions and leads the SEC in passes defended.

How he'll win the matchup: Lindley has great instincts and the ability to break on the ball, helping him set the school record for pass breakups (29) in less than three seasons. With Kentucky expected to play a mix of man and zone coverages, Lindley will try to read Smelley and add to his interception total.

Key number: 6 -- Lindley's seven career interceptions, six have come in Kentucky wins.

-- Joseph Person, The (Columbia) State