Northern Knights ball-winner Tom McKenzie learnt first-hand from a couple of AFL stars in his quest to develop as an inside midfielder this TAC Cup season.
The 18-year-old Fitzroy (Yarra Junior FL) product played as a lightly-framed wingman and running defender in 11 games for the Knights in 2017 but set out to turn himself into a bigger, stronger player in the contests this year.
183cm McKenzie averaged 23 disposals, five marks and four tackles per game in his seven appearances for Northern in 2018 and represented Vic Metro in four matches at the NAB AFL U18 Championships, later earning selection in the TAC Cup Team of the Year.
His versatility has him in the frame to be selected at the AFL Draft on November 22-23, with the knowledge of former North Melbourne champion and AFL games-record-holder Brent Harvey and current Richmond premiership player Josh Caddy helping in his development.
“My main focus coming into this year was to be able to play midfield and that meant getting a lot bigger and working on my contested ball,” McKenzie said at the recent AFL Draft Combine, where he recorded the quickest time in the 20m sprint and finished equal-second in the goalkicking test. “I had to show that I could win my own ball and not necessarily rely on my teammates getting it to me.
“That meant doing a pretty big weights program. I did gym stuff three times a week leading into pre-season and tried to maintain that at least once or twice a week during the season.
“We also had Brent Harvey and Josh Caddy come to the Knights and really help with contested-ball work, in terms of body positioning and working on our quick hands in traffic. They’ve been really good with helping not only me but all my teammates.”
McKenzie said he had always prided himself on his skills, while his “decision-making and game sense come pretty naturally”.
However, ex-Knights players Harvey and Caddy gave McKenzie an insight into how elite-level players navigate their way through contests.
“Early in the pre-season we had Brent coming in once a week and he was really good with the body positioning stuff,” McKenzie said. “It was about how to position your opponent so that you can make him fall over. I’d never really done that before.
“Josh was coming in a little bit in the pre-season and during the season as well. He was more of an influence in terms of what to do when you had the ball, like getting your hands up for handballs (in contests).
“He also talked about midfield roles. Everyone isn’t going to be able to get the ball at the same time, so you’ve got to be able to work with your teammates to organise who’s going to play what role in contests.”
THE AFL DRAFT WATCH ‘FAST FIVE’ with Tom McKenzie
Why should an AFL club draft you?
“I am a pretty versatile player that can play in a fair few positions. I also have a pretty good knowledge of the game and think I have good decision-making and kicking. I think I would be able to fit into an AFL environment pretty easily.”
What is the funniest or weirdest question you’ve been asked by an AFL club?
“I would have to say (it was from) Collingwood. All I was doing is thinking about football and they asked me a question where you have to chat three minutes with someone but it can’t be about football. It sort of stumped me for a bit, but I think I ended up getting him to talk about football so it didn’t work too well.”
Who is your football idol?
“I go for Hawthorn and a big idol was Luke Hodge. I look at the way that he goes about it and the way he led Hawthorn to the back-to-back-to-back (premierships) is fantastic.
Who will be selected with pick no.1 in the 2018 AFL Draft?
“Sam Walsh (Geelong Falcons). He is the best midfielder in the crop. I have had to play on him and he is really hard to play on. He is a fantastic footballer.”
Which of your 2018 teammates should also be in draft consideration?
“I definitely think Justin McInerney should be looked at. He didn’t play for the Knights last year but he is a fantastic player. He has a lot of potential, is lightning on the outside wing and even though he is a bit skinny, he is actually really strong and competes well in the air. I think he would be a great addition to an AFL club.”