McCray mentoring younger linebackers, hopes for momentum with bowl win

Friday, December 29, 2017 - 6:39pm

Mike McCray will end his career with the Outback Bowl on Monday.

Mike McCray will end his career with the Outback Bowl on Monday. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

 

TAMPA, Fla. — The past month has been a whirlwind for Mike McCray, and he’s yet to even play his final collegiate game.

McCray accepted an invite to the 2018 Reese’s Senior Bowl on Nov. 20. He was given the Bob Ufer Spirit Award at Michigan’s 97th Annual Football Bust on Dec. 12.

Five days later, he attended his girlfriend’s graduation party. McCray waited until everyone else had gotten a chance to speak. Then he went up to give his words of encouragement and congratulations.

Oh, yeah — he proposed, too.

“I was nervous up until the point of asking, ‘Will you marry me?’ ” McCray recalled Friday afternoon. “... I was confident she would say yes. I didn’t want to mess up. I didn’t want to drop the ring or something like that. I didn’t stutter. That was really my goal, not to stutter.”

Like McCray anticipated, his high school sweetheart — now fiancée — said yes.

McCray doesn’t know when the wedding will be. He has talked with his fiancée (he said they discussed it for “a little bit” this morning when he woke up), and it probably won’t happen until next summer. There isn’t, though, a set date.

Unlike his wedding, McCray does know when his time in a Michigan uniform will end: Monday. McCray, who has started all 12 games this season as one of the team captains, will put the finishing touches on a career that almost never materialized. He has spoken in the past about how injury problems — specifically with his shoulder — had him questioning whether he would ever see the field.

But McCray did eventually get healthy, the linebackers ahead of him on the depth chart graduated — and he took advantage. He’s now started the past 25 games, becoming a consistent presence on the interior of the defense as a forceful, run-stopping inside linebacker and recording 75 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and five sacks this year.

As his career winds down, McCray found some time to be introspective. He feels his captaincy taught him to become more vocal and helped him mature. Bowl preparations have allowed him to pass on what he’s learned in his time at Michigan — especially to Josh Ross and Devin Gil, both of whom will be competing for McCray’s spot next year.

“Those two are the main guys at my position,” McCray said. “... Just teaching them some things that I learned these past couple years, what I’ve noticed on the field and things like that. Things to look for to help you during the game.

“You can see the competition between the two. They’re both fast, athletic guys. They’ve come around a lot — especially during camp. It was a battle between those two for a second spot, really, on the depth chart. They’ve been pretty consistent with each other. Kind of like a rotation between those two right now. You can see the improvement from day one.”

Aside from preparing younger players for expanded roles, McCray feels the Outback Bowl can have other effects on the team’s transition into next season. He said the bowl game serves as a “building block for next year,” sustaining momentum throughout the offseason. The difference between a win and a loss in the bowl game — both outcomes which McCray has experienced — is notable, he says.

“You just feel better about the team,” McCray said. “I know last year when we lost, you could just feel a different vibe. The year before that, we won against Florida, you could feel that positive vibe. … Just builds confidence and a positive mood.

“Like I said, it carries when you go into winter conditioning, into spring ball, into summer conditioning, to camp, and then (we’ll) be back ready to play the game. I feel like it lasts the whole year.”

Win or lose, McCray will still have a pressing family matter to settle after the bowl. He knows his mom will continue rooting for Michigan. His dad, who played for Ohio State and served as a captain of the 1988 team, was a converted fan after McCray joined the Wolverines.

But he might revert back to old habits once his son has moved on.

“I think the rest of my family might stay,” McCray said, laughing. “I know my mom is, she said she was. She matters more than (my dad) does.”