The freshman-year apprenticeship for Jaden McKenzie set a foundation that eventually outshined that of the mentor.
At Wake Forest High School in a tiny North Carolina town just outside of Raleigh, McKenzie spent his ninth-grade football season for the Cougars watching a dominant force named Dexter Lawrence own the defensive trenches.
Yes, that Dexter Lawrence — Clemson All-American, College Football Playoff national champion and now NFL first-round draft pick.
Lawrence set the standard, but he never won a state football championship.
McKenzie? The Ohio State signee helped Wake Forest win an unprecedented three-straight North Carolina Class 4A State Championships.
“I hate to use another player when talking about Jaden, but Dexter Lawrence, who played at Clemson, when he graduated, Jaden stepped into his role as the guy to dominate on the defensive line,” Wake Forest coach Reggie Lucas told Lettermen Row. “Dexter didn’t win a championship, and the next three years, Jaden was able to capture three titles and anchor our defensive line.”
Nearly 6-feet-4 and still growing into his frame, McKenzie signed with Ryan Day’s Buckeyes after the trio of title runs that included McKenzie’s more than 60 career tackles for losses.
Rather than pout as a freshman behind Lawrence or fail to utilize his chance as understudy to future New York Giants first-rounder, McKenzie gleaned everything he could from his time behind Lawrence.
“I think that’s what made it special, he was kind of in the shadows, Jaden played with Dexter for one year on that line, and he stood back and learned from Dexter,” Lucas said. “Our defensive line coach loved his quickness, you know we kind of had to slow him down sometimes the way we wanted him to play in our defense.
“But he was very coachable, and I think some of those things helped him step into his role and be a captain. Because when he was younger, he wasn’t worried about the spotlight and waited his time.”
As McKenzie has shifted his focus onto his upcoming arrival in Columbus, Lucas has helped define target areas for improvement for the massive interior lineman, whom Lucas said had been told he could be a 1- or 3-technique player for the Buckeyes.
“My first words to him when he made the decision to go to Ohio State is to get in shape,” said Lucas, who praised the steady approach and work ethic of McKenzie throughout his prep career. “You’ve got to be in shape at that level; the conditioning from high school to the collegiate level is night and day.
“And he’s been working on conditioning and is running and sprinting, and has been in the weight room working on that with size and strength. I told him, ‘You’re not playing Division II football or some small FBS school, you’re in the big leagues at Ohio State. He’s doing his part now, but you don’t know what the guys at Ohio State are going to be like. He’s mentally trying to prepare for the worst — and by the worst, I mean he knows he is going to be challenged like never before. All the guys there are top recruits in the country. You’re not coming in there as the guy, you’re coming in there to compete.”
Which might just be what Jaden McKenzie does best. Just check the trophy case.