ANN ARBOR — Mike McCray always has been a man of few words.
The Michigan linebacker also is someone who recognizes reality, and the fact is he’s the lone returning starter on the Wolverines’ defense. So the speeches just became a bit lengthier for the fifth-year senior.
“I’m comfortable,” McCray said. “You have to do that on the field. Sometimes mistakes happen and you have to be able to correct them.”
The final season of McCray’s Michigan career has snuck up on the Ohio native. His first three years were mired in injury, including one that wiped his 2015 season out entirely. But McCray regrouped last year and utilized the offseason as his own personal get-well refuge.
It worked, as he started all 13 games last season, finishing with 76 tackles, second-most on the nation’s top-ranked defense, 12.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two interceptions, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. In the Orange Bowl, McCray demonstrated his deft athleticism with a 14-yard interception return for a touchdown.
The reputable numbers came in McCray’s first starts — he never had started a game until 2016. He’s quickly adjusted from inexperienced linebacker to mentor of an 11-man unit, and McCray’s done so with tranquility.
“At first, it was kind of different and weird being the oldest on the team,” he said. “But now I’m more comfortable with it because I know what to expect from everybody. Everybody knows I’m the oldest. I’m just trying to go out there and give it my all and be a great leader.”
So far, McCray said the bulk of his pointers have been steered toward the early enrollees.
“Our team knows what they’re doing,” McCray said. “Sometimes, you have the young guys coming in that are still struggling a little bit and you have to help those guys out. I’m not really a talkative guy, but I know being one of the older guys I have to be able to speak more.”
As he looks around at the defense, the unfamiliar faces haven’t deterred McCray. He insists his confidence is at an all-time high. The goal isn’t simply to apply patchwork to the defense, covering up major losses — Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis, Chris Wormley, Taco Charlton, Channing Stribling, etc. — the Wolverines are intent on assembling another acclaimed group, the kind that wins Big Ten championships and secures national headlines.
“I think we’re faster,” said senior defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, one of those 10 new starters, “but there’s a lot we have to work on to be as good as last year. We can be as good, if not better, honestly. It’s really impressive at times to see the type of plays that are made in practice.”
Already, McCray’s leadership is contributing to defensive coordinator Don Brown’s spring enthusiasm. After Saturday’s spring game, McCray singled out fellow linebacker Devin Bush as someone who not only strives to improve but follows through on his pledge.
Bush, a sophomore, finished with two sacks, introducing himself as a constant disruptor and probable starter come fall. He tipped his hat to McCray as someone who provided constructive criticism and counsel during the spring.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth from last spring,” McCray said. “Devin is a great player, and he should have a great season.”
Ask around the Michigan locker room, whether it be coaches or players, and a similar refrain forms: McCray’s bloomed and is due for his grand finale.
Michigan linebacker Mike McCray has become a leader not by words but by actions. However, the senior is becoming more vocal in the locker room. ASSOCIATED PRESS