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Firecats notebook: McKinney having big impact

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How is Chris McKinney impacting the Florida Firecats? Let's count the ways.

He catches passes. He returns kicks. He makes tackles and recovers fumbles.

Little wonder, then, he needed but three games to garner U.S. Army Ironman of the Week honors. McKinney, who collected the hardware following his performance in Friday's 61-34 devenomization of the Tennessee Valley Vipers, became the first Firecat to receive the honor since Chris Morant and Steve Gorrie shared it late in the 2004 season.

"We knew how versatile McKinney was bringing him in," Florida coach Kevin Bouis said. "We knew he brought all those different facets to the game."

In fact, everyone who follows the game knew it. McKinney has been a star in af2 since 2004, when he broke into the league with the Cape Fear Wildcats. He followed the franchise to South Georgia the following year, and he spent the last two seasons there, earning second team all-conference honors last year.

But McKinney hasn't been used in so many capacities, he said, since his rookie year in the league. Last year, for instance, he saw no time on defense.

"I kind of enjoy having more roles," McKinney said. "I feel like I'm a bigger part of the team."

McKinney is the No. 3 receiver for Florida -- joining established stars Magic Benton and Ethenic Sands in the starting lineup -- and he has seen significant action at linebacker. He also returns kicks, stepping in for the injured Brittany Tellis as a home-run threat on kickoffs.

Against Tennessee Valley, McKinney returned the opening kickoff of the second half for a 57-yard score. He said he and Levi Brown, the other deep man, had a conversation right before the half, and Brown told McKinney to follow him to the end zone.

It worked.

"I just didn't want to get caught by the kicker," McKinney said, recalling the play that set the tone for a big second half, with Florida scoring 34 points after intermission.

In addition to the kickoff return, McKinney also scored against the Vipers on a 23-yard fumble return, as well as two touchdown receptions from buddy Chris Wallace. He has now scored six touchdowns this year, more than any Firecat other than Sands, who has nine.

WELCOME BACK: If the Firecats, who have won their first three games by a 170-69 margin, have a weakness, it may be their lack of a top-notch running game.


It looks like their ground game, too, could be dangerous again, thanks to Tuesday's signing of Morant, a veteran ironman who began the season in the Arena Football League.

Morant has played parts of the past three seasons with the Firecats, making his biggest contribution as a linebacker. He will now focus on fullback.

Bouis said Morant, who signed with the New Orleans Voodoo in the offseason, will be in uniform Saturday when the Firecats face Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in Germain Arena, providing Florida with another veteran presence.

For the first three games of the season, the Firecats have used rookie Marlo Young at fullback. He has improved, Bouis said, but he is also a bit banged up.

This marks the second straight season in which Morant has joined the team late. He arrived last year prior to Florida's victory over South Georgia on March 27.

Unlike last season, Morant will not be counted on as an every-down linebacker. He made 18.5 tackles in 2006, but there is a more pressing need for him on offense.

"His main focus coming in," Bouis said, "is to play the fullback position."

Morant has rushed for 374 yards on 116 carries in his Firecats career. He was a key player on the 2004 championship team, starring on offense and defense.

REMEMBER ME?: Firecats fans should remember Ryan Vena, the former Albany Conquest star who signed to play quarterback for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the offseason.

Vena torched Florida in his last trip to Estero. He passed for 370 yards and six touchdowns July 15, 2006, as the Firecats took a 66-55 dogfight.

"He's a tremendous quarterback," Bouis said of Vena, who returns Saturday with his new team. "A seasoned veteran."

Vena passed for 4,520 yards last year, an af2 record. He spent two seasons with the Conquest, returning last year after two seasons with the Columbus Destroyers of the AFL.

Vena hooked up with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, an Albany rival, after another AFL opportunity fell through. His decision to choose the Pioneers -- instead of the Conquest -- as his fallback surprised many, but Vena has said he did it because he thought he'd have a better chance to win.

He might have been right. On Saturday night in Wilkes-Barre, Vena passed for 256