Intense McKillop works to perfect his gift
It's a defender's version of nature vs. nurture. Are good tacklers born or are they made? Good tackling may be all about technique. Ask any safety who has to listen to a coach berate him for lunging at a tailback. But if the player doesn't have "a nose for the ball," as coaches are wont to say, it doesn't matter how good his technique is.
Take the case of Scott McKillop, the Pittsburgh senior linebacker who, in his first season as a starter, led his team in tackling. He led every other team in tackling, too. McKillop made more tackles per game than any player in the nation last season. His 12.58 stops per game is more than 1½ tackles higher than any other returning player averaged in 2007. That adds up to 151 tackles, or 91 more -- that's right, 91 -- than Pitt's runner-up, linebacker Shane Murray.
No wonder his teammates complained. Even against an option team like Navy, when the Panther safeties quit worrying about the pass and lined up like linebackers, McKillop led the team with 14 tackles. Playing defense with the 6-foot-2, 240-pound McKillop is like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet with Sherman Klump -- you better get there ahead of him. More than once last season, McKillop said, the safeties and linebackers around him asked, "Will you let me get some tackles this game?"
Opponents learned fast to know where McKillop is. In the Panthers' 48-37 loss to South Florida, he made a career-high 18 tackles. "[Bulls quarterback] Matt Grothe looked at me, he said, 'Was that McKillops again?' I just smiled and said, 'That's me.'"
Auburn defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, who spent the past eight seasons in that same job at Pittsburgh, said it is possible for one player to make so many tackles that it's not good for the defense. But he added that's not what happened with McKillop.
"He played danged-near every snap," Rhoads said. "He was head and shoulders ahead of our next Mike. We weren't a part of any blowouts, so he didn't get a chance to sit out the fourth quarter. Our defense is built around the Mike linebacker. If the other guys are doing their job, the Mike will make a lot of tackles."
McKillop remained unmoved by his teammates' plight.
"If I'm doing my job, you got to take care of your job," McKillop said. "It's competition. You compete with yourself, compete with your teammates, compete against anybody."
McKillop, like anyone who is good at what he does, can talk about tackling at length without making anyone reach for the caffeine.
Favorite tackler: "I would say Brian Urlacher. He keeps his intensity high. He doesn't take any plays off."
His favorite tackle, or in his words, "One of the most important tackles I've made," is his stop on West Virginia tailback Steve Slaton on fourth-and-3 at the Pitt 24 with 3:47 to play, forcing the No. 2 Mountaineers to give the ball up on downs. The Panthers went on to win 13-9 and keep archrival West Virginia out of the BCS National Championship Game. "I would hope there will be more," he says.
Favorite kind of tackle: "I like open-field tackles: You stay balanced, you can't stop first, keep pumping your feet and make the tackle. That's one of the hardest tackles. That's more satisfying when you have an open-field tackle against a running back or wide receiver."
As much as McKillop worked at playing defense, he leans toward nature as being the answer.
"You just have an instinct," he said. "You watch the D-line and the O-line and read your keys. You have a second nature of what the running back is thinking. You're not thinking of what he is trying to do or not trying to do. You can watch a lot of film, but if you don't have instinct, you're not going to get it. You understand what your opponent is trying to do or not trying to do."
Rhoads fell into the middle of the spectrum, believing that McKillop combined nature and nurture as few other players do. For three seasons, McKillop served as an understudy to H.B. Blades, the 2007 sixth-round pick of the Washington Redskins. Blades showed McKillop how to work, and more important, how hard to work. Just about every time Rhoads walked down the hall, he would see McKillop in a room, feet on the table, watching video "just like a coach."
Minus the caffeine.
"I think [it was] hot chocolate," Rhoads said. "He always had double the chocolate, two envelopes."
And then there is the nature part.
"Some defensive backs know how to break up passes," Rhoads said. "Some guys can't. They can't find the ball or keep the receiver from getting separation. Some guys get off blocks. Some don't. Some guys get to the ball carrier. Some don't. Whether Scott was born with it or developed it, the key part with him is understanding the defense, understanding the opponent. Guys like him study the enemy, and within milliseconds of the snap, they know where the play is going."
But here's the thing about McKillop. Before he worked at Pittsburgh, before he had Blades as a role model, before any of that, the Export, Pa., native became the all-time leading tackler at Kiski Area High with 332 stops.
The scale just tipped toward nature. In fact, the only time McKillop has been on a field and not been ready to tackle is when, as a marketing intern for the Pittsburgh Pirates last summer, he wore one of the oversized costumes in two of the team's Great Pierogie Races. As Sauerkraut Saul, McKillop said, "It would be kind of hard to get in a stance and break down another sauerkraut."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at email@example.com.