The last time Alabama’s Xavier McKinney played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, it was as a backup safety who contributed in kickoff and punt coverage.

When McKinney returns to Atlanta for a matchup against Georgia in the SEC Championship Game this Saturday, he won’t be restricted to only helping out on special teams.

McKinney has started in all 12 of Alabama’s games this season after locking down a starting safety spot that was a question mark heading into the preseason.

Even though the Crimson Tide lost its entire starting secondary at the end of last season, McKinney wasn’t just handed the job. The former 4-star recruit had to earn it. That meant improving his coverage skills.

“I try to work on that in practice, in the games,” McKinney said. “So in practice, I try to do some things that I may not do in the game just to see where I’m at. But I definitely think it’s improved from the beginning to now.”

To ensure he continues to improve in practice, McKinney has adopted the strategy of scribbling motivational notes on his practice uniform.

“This is for just kind of my mind-set just being in practice,” McKinney said. “Before, in the meetings, I like to kind of write on my pants.”

The intensity and focus McKinney brings to practice has fueled a breakout sophomore campaign. He’s currently fifth on the team in total tackles (56), tied for second in interceptions (two) and tied for third in pass breakups (five). At his position, McKinney has shown a knack for making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage with five tackles for a loss, including three sacks. His play has earned rave reviews from Deionte Thompson, who starts at safety opposite McKinney.

“I think he’s one of the most improved guys on our defense,” Thompson said. “He’s gotten better each and every week. I’m just proud of the job he’s done from game one to now he has just risen to the occasion.”

Before practice this week, McKinney’s message to himself was simple. Just two words.

“Right here, I just said, ‘run everywhere,’ meaning basically just run to the ball wherever it’s at, whether that’s from drill to drill or whatever it is just to make sure I have the sense of urgency and get the other guys going,” McKinney said.

It’s an especially applicable message for a defensive leader responsible for helping prepare Alabama’s secondary for what he called “the best challenge” it has faced this season.

The Bulldogs’ ground game garners much of the spotlight, but McKinney is also concerned with the challenge posed by their quick receivers, such as Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley. The two have combined for 969 yards and 14 touchdowns this season.

“They’ve got a great group of receivers, a lot of guys who are athletic, very talented, speedy,” McKinney said. “And then a great quarterback who makes good reads and good throws, accurate throws. So it’s going to be a good challenge for the defensive unit and the DBs.”

They’ll certainly have to run everywhere.