Earlier this month, former Washington High School running back Shai McKenzie announced his intentions to transfer from Virginia Tech following the Spring 2017 semester. On Monday, Virginia Tech offered the 5-foot-11, 215-pound running back his official letter of release. While the letter granted him permission to speak with other institutions concerning his transfer, it also specified a few select schools which he may not contact. Pittsburgh Sports Now spoke with McKenzie Monday night regarding his letter of release, along with the factors that led to his decision to transfer.
“The schools that were listed, I didn’t really have any interest of going there,” McKenzie told Pittsburgh Sports Now. “The only schools really that upset me were when they restricted West Virginia and ACC schools—only on the side of our conference that we play on. I mean, it happens. Just playing future teams, usually all releases happen like that.”
The complete list of restricted universities includes all members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the College of William & Mary, East Carolina University, Notre Dame, Old Dominion University, the University of Delaware, and West Virginia University. As one of Virginia Tech’s ACC Coastal Division rivals, the University of Pittsburgh qualifies as a restricted destination. McKenzie understood early on that this would likely be the case, and refrained from ever setting his sights on finishing his collegiate career in Western Pennsylvania.
“Yeah, I was pretty much going to try to get in there,” Shai said concerning Pitt. “You know, it’s a new coaching staff than when I got recruited. I had pretty much a feeling that they were going to block that school for me, and West Virginia, since it’s so close to my hometown. So, I thought about it, but I knew it was pretty low chances.”
McKenzie, a former 4-star recruit, enjoyed a strong start to his tenure as a Hokie. As a true freshman in 2014, he registered 269 yards and 3 touchdowns on 53 carries through five games. However, Shai’s momentum ceased when he tore his ACL for the second time in as many years midway through the season. By the time he reached a full recovery entering the 2016 season, McKenzie found it much harder to earn carries than it was in his freshman year.
“I was recruited by Frank Beamer, and after the coaching staff left, I felt like I was losing my spot in the rotation,” he revealed. “I started as a true freshman; I had an injury and overcame a lot of things. Coming up to my redshirt sophomore year I was fully healthy and was hoping to play—have a good role in the offense—and I couldn’t get in the top three at running back rotation.”
Shai’s place on the depth chart played a primary role in his decision to apply for transfer. Adding to his discomfort in Blacksburg is the fact that the coach to whom he committed back in 2013 is no longer with the team. McKenzie pledged his collegiate career to legendary Hokie coach, Frank Beamer—a man that supported him through trial and tribulation during their time together. Coach Beamer stood by McKenzie through his ACL injuries, and provided guidance following the young man’s 2015 arrest. Through these experiences, Shai formed the type of player-coach bond many athletes seek while in college.
“He recruited me even out of high school. When I tore my ACL in high school, a lot of schools backed off from me—but Coach Frank Beamer, he didn’t back off. He knew my potential still, and continued to [let me] keep my scholarship. When things hit the fan, when I got in trouble freshman year, he pretty much kept me away from football for a little bit and eventually put me back on the team. And I was very thankful. I just built a really good relationship with Frank Beamer and that staff.”
Beamer retired following the 2015 season, leading to the hire of former Memphis head coach, Justin Fuente. The departure of Coach Beamer led to immediate doubts surrounding Shai’s future as a Hokie.
“When he left, I really had concerns of the new coaching staff. I knew I was going to graduate soon, and still have two years of football left. This past season, I really gave it a chance to see how it was going to work out. If it didn’t go in my best interests I knew I was going to transfer with my degree, and also two years of eligibility left.”
Shai intends on transferring to another FBS-level program. If all goes according to plan, he will graduate this summer from Virginia Tech, thus earning “graduate transfer” status. As a graduate transfer, McKenzie would not be forced to sit out a year, even if transferring to another FBS program. First though, he must earn his degree. Shai, a Human Development major with a minor in Sociology, will manage an eighteen credit course load this spring. As long as he passes all of his remaining courses, Shai will not need to spend a year at an FCS-level school. And while football drives McKenzie’s decision to transfer, academics will play an integral role in where he goes next as well.
“A lot of schools don’t really have Human Development as a major, so I’ll have to find that so I can try to get a Masters in that after I receive my Bachelor’s [degree]…a Master’s degree with anything is very, very good to have, especially if I’m going to get it for free. It’s very important to me—it means a lot—especially having two ACL injuries. If the NFL doesn’t work out for me, then having a Master’s degree with the minor is great to fall back on.”
McKenzie still maintains aspirations of one day playing in the NFL. To reach the next level, he understands the importance of finding a team that will allow him to play to his strengths in a system compatible with his skill set.
“I’m hoping to really get into an I-formation offense—a run-based offense,” Shai divulged. “Even being recruited by a lot of other schools than Virginia Tech, they switched to ‘The I’ a little bit when I came in…I always was a downhill runner. I ran I-formation in high school. The offense I was previously at with Virginia Tech [under Coach Fuente] was more of an option style, and I feel like it didn’t suit me.”
With his academic goals established and a specific play style in mind, McKenzie has already initiated contact with university’s that meet his needs.
“I’ve contacted a few schools. I’ve contacted a lot of schools in the MAC: Ohio University, Miami of Ohio, Akron, Kent State, a lot of MAC schools. I know Michigan State’s really interested in me. They had a little bit of a down year this year, and they’re really interested in getting it back. That’s like the only school I’m looking at in the Big Ten. They run the ball a lot, and they do have an I-formation type of offense.”
The Shai McKenzie seeking a fresh start at a new school is much different than the Shai McKenzie who enrolled at Virginia Tech in January of 2014. Injuries, mistakes, and glimpses of game changing potential have molded a young man eager for one more chance to prove himself on the field.
“My main goal is just getting a shot at football again—just wanting to play again and get that experience. And once I get the shot, and hopefully I stay healthy, I feel like a lot of good things will come.”