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He's been accused of liking cars more than football. Not true, Keith McGill said. He already chose football years ago.

But the ex-Utah cornerback will acknowledge that there's a certain kind of escape that comes with tooling around on an engine. The work has a way of erasing his anxiety, melting his world away — maybe just for an hour or two at a time — until it's just him and the car.

"If I really liked cars more than football, I probably would've stopped playing after my second surgery," he said in an interview with The Tribune. "Some people like to have a drink to relax, some people go on vacation. I work on cars."

There is a sanctuary in McGill's passion, one that he nearly followed to a lifelong career. But what started as an itch to get back on the gridiron has transformed his life into an unlikely journey to the NFL.

McGill, 25, stands to cash in on the NFL Draft this weekend, widely projected as a pick in the top three rounds. At 6-foot-3 and 211 pounds, the California native has the body of a safety with the speed of a cover corner. That's enviable for teams that have seen Seattle's success with big bodies in the secondary.

"Keith is a big corner with a great wingspan, and the trend in the NFL is going with those big guys to match up with big receivers," Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said. "People need guys like that."

The Utes needed a healthy McGill last season.

Though Whittingham wasn't thrilled early in fall camp about McGill's excess weight, the senior shredded down to be an impact player in the secondary. His 12 pass breakups led the Pac-12, and his one interception, a pick-six against UCLA, was one of the defensive highlights of the year.

Strong workouts at the NFL Combine and Utah's Pro Day led analysts and scouts to think of McGill as a prototypical defensive back. recently listed him as one of the top five athletic "freaks" in the NFL Draft. Talent guru Mike Mayock compared McGill favorably to all-Pro Seahawks corner Richard Sherman.

If anyone had been able to foresee such a rich future in football, McGill might have been the least likely candidate. He's a man rooted firmly in the present, trying to tackle the problem directly ahead of him.

Sure, he said, all football players dream about getting to the NFL. But his process was much more gradual.

"I'm not walking around, sticking out my chest, saying 'I'm going to the NFL,'" he said. "I just tried to be as successful as possible. Every day in practice, I made adjustments. You don't really plan it, you just adjust."

Out of La Mirada High, McGill graduated into the working world to support his mother, Shoundelle Paxton. He was as blue-collar as they come: a trained mechanic who worked for a year and a half in an auto shop near his hometown.

But after conferring with his parents, McGill decided to go back to football. He excelled at Cerritos College, where he was an All-American with seven picks as a safety in 2010.

The talent that had been so obvious in junior college took some time to matriculate at Utah. A torn labrum ended McGill's first season after five games, and then bled into his next year with the Utes. He took a medical redshirt after another surgery in 2012, which was frustrating, but it was a time when being a little older helped.

"You see people improving, getting bigger and faster, and you want to get back out there," he said. "I know a lot of people talk about my age, but I don't see it as a negative. I think some guys would crack under stress sooner than I would, but I was able to see the bigger picture."

The 2013 season was a mixed one for the Utes, but a good one for McGill, going against some of the best Pac-12 receivers. It earned him a Senior Bowl invitation, and a trip to the NFL Combine. Once he did well there, his stock skyrocketed.

He's since been back to his old shop in California, and spent some time with former co-workers. After solid months of scouts and coaches who only wanted to talk about football, the change of pace was welcome relaxation. Although he's days away from being on a pro team, he's anonymous among the car crowd.

"It's good to see the shop's still doing good, that everybody still has a job," he said. "In that car scene, those guys don't really care about sports. They just want to talk cars. It's kind of nice once in a while to see those guys."

Playing a year at cornerback and only two at safety, McGill said he's open to either position. Wherever his future team wants to try him, he'll adapt. He hopes that flexibility is an asset that separates him from prospects who have played one position their entire careers.

As a former working man, McGill won't be going on a spending spree, either. His mother and father already told him they don't want him to buy them anything. Every penny will pass under a financial adviser's microscope: "If I'm busy spending money on cars and all those things, I won't be able to play football."

But, sure, maybe there's a car in this NFL thing down the road for him. As he's done throughout his life, McGill just wants to see where the road takes him.

twitter: @kylegoon —

Keith McGillat a glance

• Defensive back

• 6-foot-3,211 pounds

• 25 years old

• From La Mirada, Calif.

• First-team junior college All-American at Cerritos College

• Led the Pac-12 last season with 12 pass breakups

• Returned an interception for a touchdown against UCLA

• Projected to be picked in top three rounds of NFL draft