Before last season, Mike McCray had recorded just two tackles in his college career and had never started a game for the Michigan football team.
McCray, a former four-star recruit out of high school, had always shown promise — a blocked punt in a victory over Appalachian State in 2014 had displayed as much. But McCray couldn’t stay on the field — health problems, including a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the entire 2015 season, derailed his first three years in a Wolverine uniform.
With the graduation of three senior linebackers — Joe Bolden, Desmond Morgan and James Ross — a healthy McCray finally got his chance last year and ran with it. He made an immediate impact in his first start, a season-opening victory over Hawaii where he made nine tackles, 3.5 for loss and two sacks, to kick-start an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention campaign in which he totalled 76 stops, including 12.5 for a loss as well as 4.5 sacks and two interceptions.
One year later, the fifth-year senior linebacker is the only returning starter from the previous season’s dominant defense. But that’s not the only thing different about McCray, according to linebackers coach Chris Partridge.
“There’s an aura about him that’s different than it was last year and that’s important because guys will look up to him,” Partridge said. “He’s a hard worker and he’s tough, he’s a Big Ten linebacker. Now with that aura about him and that sense of leadership he’s stepped his game up.”
To Partridge, McCray has carried himself in a different manner so far in fall camp — a manner that is essential. The omnipresent theme for Michigan — young and talented, but inexperienced — applies to its linebacking corps as much as anywhere, and McCray has asserted himself as a necessary veteran voice for that group.
“Last year he was kind of feeling it out early, started gaining confidence and became a tremendous football player for us,” Partridge said. “This year he’s coming in having that background and he’s able to impose himself on the other guys and on the young guys.”
The impact of McCray’s new role as an elder statesmen was visible even in the spring. Sophomore Devin Bush Jr. was immediately slotted in as McCray’s backup at the WILL linebacker position last season, and made a big impact in the Wolverines’ spring game, tallying two sacks.
So far during camp, Bush has mostly played at the MIKE position vacated by Ben Gedeon from last season, and after a year learning the ropes from veterans such as McCray, he appears primed for a breakout in the middle of Michigan’s defense with his increased maturity and physical development.
“Athletically, he’s a guy who works just as hard off the field as on the field, really enjoys the game and all aspects of it,” Partridge said. “His ceiling’s high and he keeps getting better and better. Obviously a very savvy football player from his background from his father playing and everything like that, so we’re excited about what he’s going to be able to do.”
Perhaps the biggest hole in the Wolverines’ linebacker unit, however, comes at the VIPER position once home to the do-everything Jabrill Peppers. While the competition to win the starting job is far from over, sophomore Khaleke Hudson appeared to have the upper hand after an impressive spring.
“(He’s a) guy that just loves contact," Partridge said. “People feed off of that too. He’s becoming very well-rounded as a player, so he’s going to be enjoyable to watch.”
Hudson might be the most natural replacement for Peppers on Michigan’s roster — in fact, both were recruited as defensive backs before switching to the hybrid linebacker-safety position. Described as a “hammerhead” by Partridge, Hudson’s athleticism and explosiveness should provide a key dimension for the Wolverines and emulate to some extent what Peppers was able to bring last season, as he works to become a more skilled player instead of relying solely on aggression.
“You’re never going to tell Coach Brown that you don’t want someone to run full speed into things,” Partridge said. “That’s a small part of it, but he’s gonna round out his game just like anyone always would. Coach Brown will never say take away that physicality, but you learn how to play with that physicality.”
With the leadership of upperclassmen such as McCray and senior Michael Wroblewski, as well as the talent of younger players like Bush, Hudson and freshmen Drew Singleton and Jordan Anthony, Michigan’s linebacking corps has been touted by some as its best defensive unit. But Partridge stated that the pressure on the group to live up to those expectations will be key for them to fulfill that promise.
“There’s pressure at all moments and that’s something you have to learn how to deal with. You gotta just put your head down and keep working,” Partridge said. “I tell these guys all the time, ‘You want to be tough, do tough things.’ Pressure is a part of being tough and camp is a part of being tough and fighting through things and working together. We’ll take on all comers, anything that will make us tougher and make us a better unit is something we embrace.”