By JAMES G. KANE
Senior Jalen McKenzie stands out among his teammates and most of the high school players with whom he shares a field. Whether it’s his 6 foot-7, 280-pound frame, or his ability to dominate opposing defensive lineman, No. 55 jumps out almost immediately.
To say nothing of his last name.
But on this particular Friday night in the second quarter at Clayton Valley Charter High, he’s not standing out at all. He started at center for the first time in high school, and it shows.
A snap to Zia Rahmany in the shotgun formation is taken by the quarterback just inches above the ground. The next snap bounces. The next one comes ankle high.
To repeat, this is McKenzie’s first start “” one that he’s making with two broken fingers and during which he will slightly sprain an ankle.
“Eh,” is his initial one-syllable response when asked about it. “It’s hard, but our team needs me to do it. I’ll be fine.”
Perhaps such relentless self-confidence is to be expected when one is gifted with size, great footwork, smarts and instinct. Oh yeah, and that name.
Jalen’s father, Reggie, is the Oakland Raiders’ general manager and a former NFL lineman. His uncle, Reggie’s twin brother, Raleigh, starred for the famed Hogs of NFL offensive line lore, and won two Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins.
His brother, Khalil, was a five-star recruit and is playing football at Tennessee. He has a sister who teaches at Duke University, and another who works at Google.
Big success, it seems, comes with the name, and Jalen McKenzie fully expects to be the next in line. He’s done nothing so far to show his coach or anyone else he won’t be.
“The kid,” Clayton Valley head coach Tim Murphy said, “is top notch in every way.”
Well, in every way but producing perfect snap after perfect snap, but that’ll come quick enough, his coach said.
McKenzie’s future likely is at offensive tackle, anyway, a position in which he ranks 48th in the country, according to Rivals.com. He has not decided where he’ll go to college, but he says Pac-12 schools have shown the most interest.
Those expectations, not to mention that name, might be a burden for some. McKenzie doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s mostly good,” McKenzie said of the success that surrounds him. “It adds a lot to my motivation to do well, makes me want to work hard and get better. At the same time, I have to be who I am, and not who anyone thinks I am.”
Who he will be is anybody’s guess. His father became a linebacker and started in 40 of the 60 NFL games he played from 1985-92. Raleigh McKenzie started at left guard in Super Bowl XXVI for the Redskins, and was an All-Pro in 1991. He played 16 seasons in the NFL. Khalil McKenzie was an All-American as an eighth grader.
Jalen McKenzie, for the time being, is none of those things. He’s a relative novice at his best position, never mind one that he’s just learning how to play. But even in that area, the bloodlines help.
“From a coach’s standpoint, his dad is kind of the perfect dad,” Murphy said. “I’ve never heard a single word from him. He goes to the dinners. He’s there. But it’s not about him, and everything is team. Team, team, team. You see that in Jalen.”
So it is that McKenzie wound up with his hands on the ball.
“My dad told me the same thing happened to him in high school,” he said. “His team was playing (late NFL Hall of Fame defensive lineman) Reggie White, so they moved him there. He handled it. I’ll handle it.”
The athletic promise has been there since Jalen McKenzie first put on the pads as an elementary school student. He arrived at Clayton Valley fully in Khalil McKenzie’s shadow, then immediately suffered an injury that required surgery on his right tibia. He did not return until the eighth game of his sophomore season.
McKenzie’s junior year was wiped out on his second play, when he suffered a torn ACL in his knee after his foot stuck in the turf during a long run by running back Ray Jackson III.
“If you think about it, this is a kid who basically went from eighth-grade football straight to varsity,” Murphy said. “I mean, think about that. I would compare it to going from high school to an NFL tryout.
“And then, in that first varsity year, he ends up starting in the (CIF State Bowl) championship game. So if that doesn’t give you an idea about the natural ability the kid has, nothing will. He’s making great use of his gene pool.”
The intangibles seem to stick out more than anything else, his coach added.
“He’s in love with the idea of helping his team,” Murphy said. “He wants the team to get better. He wants teammates to get better. Whatever he can do to help that process, he does.”
On this Friday, McKenzie’s example exemplifies his team’s. The Ugly Eagles play just that way, yet still defeat Canyon Springs-North Las Vegas (Nev.) with relative ease 35-7. They fumble three times, including once at the Canyon Springs 1-yard line. They give up several big passing plays, and commit the occasional boneheaded penalty.
But, playing as a team, they also open gaping holes between the tackles, with running backs Thomas Alatini and James Teofilo running for big gains behind McKenzie, who sometimes occupies two lineman.
One play after an errant snap, McKenzie is so fazed that he destroys a lineman, a hole opens, and Alatini goes 62 yards for a score.
Intangibles mixing with tangibles. Nothing ugly about it.