Ethan McKenzie prefers to keep his options open.
Standing six-foot-5 and weighing 300 pounds, the Heritage Christian junior is the starting left tackle and nose tackle for the Eagles’ football team. And though football has always been the McCordsville resident’s first love, McKenzie stays involved in other activities off the gridiron, including those of the theatrical variety.
For example, he earned the role of Little John in the school’s production of “Robin Hood” his freshman year.
Yes, he had to wear tights.
“That was rough,” he said with a hearty chuckle, “I survived though.”
Between the lines, McKenzie, who was born in Greenfield, is all business when it comes to protecting his quarterback or stuffing the run. That’s why this offseason and especially this summer, he got serious about improving his craft.
McKenzie attended linemen-only camps at Eastern Illinois, Indiana and Notre Dame in addition to the Junior Rank Sports Diamond Flight Camp in Chicago, where he took on linemen from all over the Midwest.
“Those were really good experiences. The IU camp was the first real big camp that I’ve done,” said McKenzie, who has received letters of interest from Michigan State and Wisconsin. “It opened my eyes to the kind of competition I’m going to be expecting to see.”
Allen Trieu, Midwest Football Recruiting Manager for Scout.com, saw McKenzie for the first time at the Junior Rank Camp and walked away impressed.
“For a young kid at that size, he was moving around pretty well,” Trieu said. “Sometimes kids that young are uncoordinated, but he was able to move that big body around.
“It was a smart move by him to come out to some of these summer camps and see good competition from around the country. It’s a different kind of competition than he’ll be seeing during his high school schedule. That’ll help him in the long run.”
However, fulfilling his goal of playing collegiate football means McKenzie had to go to work on the not-so-glamorous aspects of line play like hand technique, footwork and proper balance.
Assisting McKenzie with that development is Jimmy Graves, the offensive line coach at Pike and the Director of Football Skills Development for Indianapolis-based Football Performance LLC, where McKenzie is a client.
“When I first met (Ethan), he had a lot of desire, a lot of want-to,” said Graves, who coached offensive line at Heritage Christian last season. “He’s turning himself into a pretty good football player through his offseason workouts.
“He has put forth effort to improve on the things he needs to work on like flexibility and strength. He’s eating better. He’s taking hold of those things.”
McKenzie also has brains to go along with his brawn, scoring a 2,070 out of 2,400 on the SAT and 1,500 out of 1,600 on the SAT I.
Heritage Christian coach Ron Qualls said McKenzie thinks about football in a different way than many players.
“When you’ve got those types of SAT scores, it’s one thing if all you can do is answer questions. But he has the application knowledge,” said Qualls, who founded the Eagles’ football program 10 years ago. “He knows how to take a given defense or offense and understand all the possibilities which could come his way based on a given defensive or offensive front.
“Depending on the position he’s playing, he can take the knowledge that he has and then apply that knowledge while he moving his feet to the game of football. It makes him so much better as a football player not to just have to react to everything he sees, but he can anticipate based on his level of knowledge and skill.”
One day, when his football days are long gone, McKenzie hopes to pursue a career in medicine. He recently spent a week with Dr. John Storey, a thoracic cardiovascular surgeon with the Community Health Network in Indianapolis.
“I got to watch a couple surgeries and talk with patients,” said McKenzie, whose younger brother, Jacob, stands 6-3 and plays defensive line for the Heritage Christian Middle School eighth grade team. “It was a really incredible opportunity.”
Still, first and foremost McKenzie is a football player. What position he plays in college is up in the air, however.
“If I were recruiting him … he’s got upside on both sides. He needs to improve his speed to be a D-lineman. He needs more flexibility on the offensive side,” said McKenzie, a former coach at Butler, Indiana and Indiana State. “He is a prospect, for sure. At what position, I don’t know. He has to have a really good junior year.
“It will be interesting to see his development from last fall to this fall. That’ll be a tell-tale sign.”
McKenzie loves defense, but has grown to appreciate the other side of the ball as well.
“If you asked me the same question two years ago I would’ve said defense, hands down. I think my body type is more suited to offensive line though. I’m pretty big,” said McKenzie, who presently has interest in IU, Notre Dame, Princeton and Yale. “I guess I could play run-gap defense (too). I think I could be well-suited for that.
“Long term, I want to play football in college and pay for an education.”
Qualls advises all of his players to never close a metaphorical door on an opportunity.
“Continue to pursue each and every one of those (possibilities) as long as it fits your base of parameters, those parameters being academics first,” said Qualls, whose team won the 2A state title in 2008. “(Ethan) knowing exactly what he wants to do already is an advantage most of us didn’t have at 16-years-old.”
And while Graves will continue to assist McKenzie in his football career, he was clear in his admiration for his client as a person.
“Ethan is a phenomenal human being...well-mannered, well-spoken. Very, very intelligent kid,” Graves offered. “He can play for me any time. He’s not going to be a problem off the field.”
Growing up, McKenzie played baseball and lacrosse as secondary sports. Upon his arrival at Heritage Christian, he took up track and field and immediately started throwing the discus and shot put for the varsity squad.
And in addition to taking the figurative stage on Friday nights and occasionally the literal one with his involvement in theater, McKenzie also participated as a lawyer and lead witness for the defense on the school’s mock trial team, which qualified for the state tournament.
All of his pursuits have dealt McKenzie a hectic schedule. He said he might have to drop one of his hobbies. Hint: It won’t be the one that has the ball made of leather and laces.
“I think I’m going to have to cut one of those things out and it might be the play,” McKenzie explained. “I really enjoy doing that, but I think it like the others better.”
Heritage Christian begins its season Friday at 6 p.m. in Lucas Oil Stadium against Cardinal Ritter at the Peyton Manning Peyback Classic.