TROY – Khalil McClain is remarkably adaptable, whether it’s running precise routes against zone or man defenses, from the slot or outside, or just living in New Orleans, Hutchinson, Kan., or Troy.
The 6-foot-4, 227-pound McClain is a Fairburn, Ga., native who originally attended Tulane, transferred to the renowned Hutchinson Community College and now plays for the Trojans.
Asked about the social scene in his college towns, McClain smiled. “Hutchinson wasn’t very social … and it was cold,” the Georgia native said. “New Orleans was nice. I tried to stay as close to uptown, near the school. That’s what they told us to do. They said don’t go too far out.
“I like Troy the most, though. I enjoy it here. I like the Flats. That’s where I live.”
McClain looked at home at Veterans Memorial Stadium last Saturday night. He had what coach Chip Lindsey called a breakout game when he torched Southern Miss for 104 yards and two touchdowns, 34- and 35-yarders both in the fourth quarter, on just four catches.
He was one of four 100-yard receivers for Troy on quarterback Kaleb Barker’s record-setting night that included 504 yards passing.
“I’m not going to lie, he’s really good,” McClain said of his quarterback. “He set a record. Throwing for 500 is impressive. …
“We have an explosive offense. Our receivers are really good. We have a strong receiving corps, we have a good O-line to get Barker some time. He delivers the ball and we score touchdowns.”
McClain was a dual-threat quarterback at Creekside High School. He signed with Tulane as a quarterback and played in two games in the 2017 season. But he left Tulane and went to Hutchinson as a receiver. He caught 27 passes for 452 yards and five touchdowns last year in JUCO, where he was rated as the No. 5 JUCO wide receiver in the country by 247Sports.
However, in the last two games of the season he moved back to quarterback – “I had to be the quarterback,” he said, making it clear it wasn’t necessarily his choice.
Remarkably, colleges weren’t all over him last year. He received – and verbally accepted – an offer to Kansas State. After the commitment – and a coaching change at Kansas State – is when his phone started ringing. Among those calling was Troy receivers coach Cornelius Williams.
“I had a personal relationship with coach Williams. I knew he was a good guy,” McClain said. “He recruited me in high school.”
As for the other callers, McClain said, he wondered where they had been during the season. “You’re like, the love don’t feel real then.”
He decided he wasn’t a good fit at Kansas State.
“They run a run-first offense, and I prefer to be in a passing-style offense,” he explained.
Even though he had committed to Kansas State earlier in the month, McClain took a visit to Troy last December. It wasn’t exactly red-carpet treatment.
“There weren’t a lot of people here,” McClain recalled. “I think they were taking finals when I came here. I liked it on the visit. It was nice. I didn’t commit when I was here.”
That came during the 17-hour drive back to Georgia.
“I rented a U-Haul. Me, my dad and my brother drove back from Kansas. I decided on that trip,” McClain said. “We talked about it. My dad said, ‘It’s your decision. You have to be there, but I’d like you to be close.’ I was kind of tired of the cold anyway.”
He signed with Troy in the early December period and went through spring drills with the Trojans. He said his experience as a quarterback reading defenses helped “a lot” in his transition to receiver. It also speeded up his transition from junior college to Division I football.
“I always like to read the coverage when I get in my stance,” McClain said. “That helps a lot, I think, because I can find an opening better than other receivers who don’t know coverages as well.”
Lindsey agreed, noting several quarterbacks transition to receiver probably faster than any other position.
“I think it has helped him. He is a really good athlete. He has great hands. He is a really smart kid,” the head coach said. “He is intelligent, understands the game and it was great to see him break out on Saturday.”
Troy cornerback O’shai Fletcher works against McClain every day.
“That’s a big boy,” the 5-11, 166-pound Fletcher said, shaking his head. “As far as guarding him, he gives you a little bit of everything – much power, he’s got great hands. He just gets you better every day.
“In the game, he surprised me. He can run a little bit. I didn’t know he could get loose like that. He did a great job showcasing what he can do.”
McClain had a big moment with a tip-toe catch in the near right corner of the end zone that helped Troy cut its deficit to 47-42 with a little under three minutes remaining.
“It was real loud. I was by all the cheerleaders. All of them started yelling,” he said. “I really thought I was out of bounds, I’m not going to lie. I was trying to stay in.
“I put my hands up. The ref didn’t say anything and I put my hands up, hoping he’d throw his up with mine. When he did, I thought, ‘Oh, he gave it to me.’ I was trying to encourage him.”
He didn’t need to. Replays showed McClain stayed in bounds by inches.
“That was a great play. He did a great job concentrating. That ball was up in the air for a while,” Lindsey said. “The one thing we like with Khalil, Reggie (Todd, 6-foot-5) and even Luke (Whittemore, 6-foot-2) are longer guys. Bigger guys on the outside give you a chance. … I think Khalil is progressing really well and I’m excited about his future.”