ANN ARBOR, Mich. — With names such as Jabrill Peppers, Jourdan Lewis and Chris Wormley plastered across Michigan’s No. 1-ranked defense, it’s sometimes easy to overlook guys such as inside linebacker Mike McCray.
In all likelihood, he’d probably be a headliner for another team if not mixed with All-American-caliber colleagues at Michigan.
Two-and-a-half sacks. Thirty-two tackles, the second-most on the team. Four pass break-ups, also the second-most on the team. Through six games, the 6-foot-4, 248-pound redshirt junior has been a star.
Well, that depends on your perspective. Sure, coach Jim Harbaugh publicly praises a lot of players — but he also makes sure to maintain focus on the team, as a whole, rather than highlight just one person or coach.
Truth be told, McCray probably doesn’t get enough media attention for his performance.
Again, that’s the byproduct of playing on a No. 1-ranked defense with arguably the best D-line and several “one of the best” types at nearly every position.
But on Monday, Harbaugh had no issue putting McCray in the spotlight. Yeah, Harbaugh preaches team-first 99 percent of the time, but he’s also gone out of his way to assign “A-plus-plus-plus” grades and other praise when appropriate.
Monday, just days before Saturday’s homecoming versus Illinois, was the right time.
“Mike McCray is doing an outstanding job,” Harbaugh said. “I just speak the truth up here, you know? When people deserve a pat on the back… yeah, I put them ahead of people.”
When necessary, that “pat” gets a little more intense. The more work, the more pats — it’s a pretty simple reward system.
“He’s having a tremendous year,” Harbaugh said of McCray. “He’s really been a consistently good performer, an ascending player — he gets his job done. A very good leader, on the field, but just consistently good. Day-in, day-out, not a lot of fanfare. Never any drama… and he’s just a good football player.”
One year ago, McCray’s progress was hampered by a shoulder injury, forcing him to miss the entire 2015 season. Other bumps and bruises prolonged his situation — but they never knocked him out of the running for a starting spot.
He’s been mentioned since redshirting in 2013. He debuted with a punt block against Appalachian State in 2014.
But the dents and dings just wouldn’t cease.
“He wasn’t healthy our first year here,” Harbaugh said. “He has been (this year) and has worked very hard to have strength at the right level. He’s overcome shoulder injuries and — you know, tough as they come. Never hear a word of complaint. Never a whine.”
Athletically, McCray — a former Ohio prep defensive player of the year and talented receiver — has demonstrated the total package: Run support, blitzing — which McCray enjoys to the fullest extent — and pass coverage have all met the grade through six games.
Expect more of the same during the second half of 2016.
“He can athletically play outside the box and physically play within the box,” said Harbaugh, noting that McCray has “real(ly) good” instincts.
Instinct, obviously, happens to be “one of the most important tools,” per Harbaugh.
Safe to say McCray’s done well. He’s nearly had a pick-6. He’s made five tackles for a loss. Constantly influencing plays.
McCray’s happy and highly confident — a 180-degree turn from this time in 2015, when he was physically unable to suit up for the Wolverines, who finished 10-3 after a 41-7 Citrus Bowl win over Florida.
“I think it was more emotional, because I knew, athletically, I could do it,” said McCray, who’s made 11 appearances during his four-year career in Ann Arbor. “But emotionally, just being out and not being able to play the game that I love, it kind of takes a toll on you a little bit…
“Watching your teammates go out there and have fun together, and you’re just sitting there… watching… it’s kind of hard.”
He’s gone through the lows. He’s been sidelined without control.
But that’s all changed in 2016. Today, and based on his play through six games, McCray would probably be a defensive star at any Power 5 school. He’s come that far in 12 months, and he’s earned the right to be satisfied.
Satisfied, but never content. McCray simply wants to keep doing what he’s done — which has been serving as a beyond-reliable force in the middle.
“During the time I was out, it made me a lot stronger, mentally, and I feel like it’s paying off now, you know?” said McCray, who debuted with nine tackles and a forced fumble during a season-opening 63-3 win over Hawaii.
Against Penn State, he had a 22-yard interception. Throw in five tackles versus then No. 8-ranked Wisconsin, five against Colorado — and yeah, he’s fully healthy and playing as well as anyone on his defense.
“I’m just going out there and having fun,” he said. “And not taking anything for granted.”