NCF Nation: Lerentee McCray

After physical games over the weekend, Alabama and Florida are hurting a bit heading into Saturday.

The sixth-ranked Gators (8-1, 7-1 SEC) could be missing a handful of players against Louisiana-Lafayette, while No. 1 Alabama (9-0, 6-0) is hoping running back Eddie Lacy and wide receiver Amari Cooper are 100 percent for Saturday's showdown with 15th-ranked Texas A&M (7-2, 4-2).

Alabama's injuries aren't too significant. Both Cooper and Lacy suffered ankle injuries in last week's win over LSU, but both practiced on Tuesday.

"Amari seems to be getting better and Eddie's, you know, hopefully he'll be even better today," coach Nick Saban said during Wednesday's SEC coaches call. "He probably took about half the reps yesterday. We're optimistic that both those guys will be ready to go."

Having freshman T.J. Yeldon helps take some of the pressure off Lacy, and if he were hobbled this weekend, Yeldon would have no issues taking the bulk of the carries (he's had no issue doing it before), but if Cooper isn't 100 percent the Tide could lose an important part of its passing game. Cooper is Alabama's best deep threat and has been the team's most consistent receiver. He leads Alabama Tide with 32 catches, 472 yards and five touchdowns.

The Gators are hurting a little more. Coach Will Muschamp said on Wednesday that backup running back Mack Brown will "probably be out" with an ankle injury and hasn't been able to do anything in practice this week. Wide receiver Andre Debose hyperextended his knee last Thursday and could miss his second straight game. Also, defensive tackle Leon Orr has been working his way back from an illness and "probably will not play Saturday."

Florida left the Missouri game with a laundry list of battered Gators: K Caleb Sturgis (ankle injury suffered in last week's practice), OG James Wilson (knee), OT Xavier Nixon (knee), LB/DE Lerentee McCray (ankle), OG Jon Halapio (undisclosed), FB Hunter Joyer (knee) and S Matt Elam (groin).

On Wednesday, Muschamp said he expects players back from Saturday's injuries. Expect to see a lot more of Florida's younger players this week and next, as the Gators play tune-up games before traveling to Tallahassee, Fla., to take on archrival Florida State.
Lerentee McCray has been through and seen a lot during his long Florida career.

The fifth-year senior linebacker/defensive end has seen the highs of winning a national championship and the lows of the school’s first losing record in conference play since the 1980s.

As he prepares to suit up for his final season in Gainesville, McCray wants to be a major component in what he hopes is a revival for the program in 2012.

“Whatever it takes to win, I’m ready to do it,” McCray said.

He’ll certainly get his chance, as he fills in for the injured and ever-popular Ronald Powell at the Buck position. Powell, who was the nation’s top recruit two years ago, had his best spring as a Gator this year before suffering an ACL injury during the spring game that should keep him out for most of the fall. While McCray missed all of spring recovering from shoulder surgery, Florida’s coaches didn’t hesitate to name him as Powell’s replacement.

[+] EnlargeLerentee McCray
Kim Klement/US PresswireFifth-year senior Lerentee McCray is in line for more playing time this fall.
And why would they? McCray is basically a bona fide hybrid. He began his career as an outside linebacker, but has since moved back and forth between linebacker and defensive end. He even got some action at Buck last year when Powell went down with an injury against Auburn.

He doesn’t have the name or hype Powell does, but McCray might have a little more fire and hunger, considering the up-and-down career he’s had in his four-plus years at Florida.

The former U.S. Army All-American participant and ESPN 150 member made the 50-plus-mile journey from Dunnellon, Fla., to Gainesville with lofty expectations. Along with just about everyone in his hometown, McCray expected to immediately compete for a starting spot and certainly expected a healthy amount of playing time as a freshman. But things didn’t exactly work out, as the 202-pound frosh played in just eight games, mostly on special teams, during the Gators’ national championship run. He played in just three games in 2009, receiving a medical redshirt.

Even with frustration mounting, McCray took time to learn from veteran playmakers such as Brandon Spikes, Ryan Stamper and Jermaine Cunningham. Sitting and watching motivated him and created a fierier attitude when it came to working out and practice.

But to make the kind of impact he wanted, McCray had to get bigger, so he was placed in Florida’s famed “Breakfast Club” where he turned into a real eater, inhaling as much steak, lobster and shrimp as he could during team feeding hours.

“I wasn’t a big eater before I got here, but they made me eat,” said McCray, who is at a comfortable 253 pounds that he hopes to maintain this fall.

Now that McCray has the will and the size, he’s looking to make a statement. He’s enjoyed a national championship and has seen Florida defenses rack up accolades, but he feels empty knowing he hasn’t been a tremendous help to his team yet.

“It’s been a high and low experience,” McCray said. “That’s life.”

That could change this fall, as McCray, who was named to the Butkus Award watch list, sees his role increase. He’s only appeared in 30 career games with just five starts, but had his best season yet in 2011, recording 24 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, giving coach Will Muschamp the impression that McCray could shine in 2012.

“I’m expecting a big year out of him,” Muschamp said. “I really am.”

Senior linebacker Jon Bostic feels the same way, but he’s always expected McCray to be a star. The first sign was during his freshman year, when Bostic recalls watching a scrawny McCray consistently put offensive linemen on their backs in practice.

“Regardless of what weight he was, he wasn’t going to back down from anybody,” Bostic said. “He’s one of those hard-nosed guys that’s going to run right down the middle at people.

“He makes somebody feel the pain before he does.”

McCray hopes to inflict even more pain this fall. And he isn’t concerned about any added pressure that will come with replacing Powell, who led Florida in sacks last year. He embraces the test and plans to finally make a name for himself.

“I’m a person who likes to take on challenges,” he said. “I came from the bottom. I’d like to get to the top. That’s what I’m looking to achieve, so I really don’t feel any pressure because I’m already the underdog.”
HOOVER, Ala. -- Now that another year of SEC media days are through, it's time to take a look back at the best moments from this year's three days in the Wynfrey Hotel:

Best interview: Yes, Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe had a pretty good time with the media in Hoover and Arkansas coach John L. Smith seemed to win over the main ballroom during his press conference, but the best interview of the week had to go to Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones. The veteran strolled right into our interview room munching on pecan pie bites without a care in the world. But the real magic came during his video interview where he playfully crushed his best friend and former teammate William Vlachos and gave fellow SEC blogger Chris Low a shout out during his hit. Jones came prepared and knew how to have fun.

[+] EnlargeDonte Moncrief
Butch Dill/AP PhotoOle Miss WR Donte Moncrief dresses to the nines for his appearance at SEC media days.
Best quote: There were so many good one-liners from Moe that we're giving you our top three from the week:

  • Moe on what's different about the SEC: “They say girls are prettier here, air’s fresher and toilet paper is thicker.” -- Offensive lineman Elvis Fisher later told us that this line was planned after a conversation during the trip over.
  • But Moe wasn't done there: "Apparently Ryan Swope is a god because he can come in and get first-team all-SEC. But that’s fine.”
  • And this one really got to Arkansas running back Knile Davis: “In the Big 12, we put our best athletes on offense. [In the SEC], they put their best athletes on defense."
Best outfit: The players came out and dressed well this week, like Auburn's Corey Lemonier and bow tie and red-striped socks and Vanderbilt's Trey Wilson in his slick charcoal suit with the black checkered shirt and red tie. But Ole Miss wide receiver Donte Moncrief stole the show with his colorful outfit. He rocked a light beige jacket over a checkered mint shirt and a blue bow tie. He was also equipped with salmon pants and a bright pink pocket square. The man dresses with confidence.

Best moment: Davis was as cool and relaxed as ever during his time in Hoover. He had no problem proclaiming that he still was the league's best running back, but the best moment came when he was leaving our room. As Davis headed toward the door, Chris asked him if he still thought he was the best and Davis replied with a smile, "Still the best and tell Marcus [Lattimore] I'm coming for him."

Best interviewer: We paled in comparison to the journalistic skills of Mississippi State offensive lineman Gabe Jackson, who took some time to interview Chris on camera. Chris looked like a deer in headlights when Jackson started firing hard-hitting questions and then asked him to name as many dog breeds as he could in 10 seconds. The tongue-tied Chris didn't even mention bulldog.

Most improved: LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger has had a very up-and-down college career, but he walked right into media days without a nervous fiber in his body. He's known to boast a little about his talents and had every opportunity to once again, but didn't. He was very humble and praised his teammates before even mentioning his ability. Plus, he handled questions about his past at Georgia like a pro.

Most confident: We're naming our top four here:

  • Moe: He's sick of hearing about transitioning over to the SEC and he let everyone know about it.
  • Davis: No hesitation in claiming he's the SEC's best running back.
  • Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray: He doesn't talk much, but he made the statement that Tennessee will win the SEC this season. That's pretty gutsy.
  • Florida running back Mike Gillislee: His goal for the season: 1,500 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. Florida hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ciatrick Fason in 2004 and 24 rushing touchdowns would break Tim Tebow's record of 23.
Best hair: Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones had his hair braided in a very creative, funky way and it looked clean. It also took three and a half hours to do.

Coming out of his shell: Florida outside linebacker/defensive end Lerentee McCray is pretty soft-spoken and can be shy around the media, but not in Hoover. He was talkative and showed a little confidence when he said his favorite part of football is hitting the quarterback so he can "wipe the smiles off their faces."
DESTIN, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp isn't going to bet against Ronald Powell coming back this fall.

Despite the rising junior defensive end/linebacker undergoing ACL surgery on April 23, Muschamp said he's still holding out hope that Powell will return at some point during the fall.

“I think so. I really do," Muschamp said during the 2012 SEC spring meetings Tuesday. "I’m not going to bet against him. He’s working extremely hard. His range of motion is way ahead of where it should be at this time. His strength levels are good. Everything points really good."

By all accounts, Powell, who led the Gators with six sacks and recorded nine tackles for loss in 2011, had a tremendous spring and showed a lot of improvement in the maturity department before his injury during Florida's spring game.

Earlier this month, Muschamp said that Powell was off crutches and appeared to be ahead of schedule, but he's still in wait-and-see mode.

"Like I’ve said, I think the last 30 percent of an ACL is the hard part," he said. "That’s when you start cutting, that’s when you start to take on people, the weight, all of that that you’ve got to deal with. Those are the things that I think will decide (when he returns) as we move closer and when we get into August and September and that four-month timeframe. Our (medical) people do a great job and the surgery went very well. We’re pleased with how the surgery went and how the swelling and all things hold up.”

Redshirt senior Lerentee McCray backed Powell up at the Buck position last fall, but missed spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. Muschamp also said that sophomore linebacker Neiron Ball could compete at Buck or the Sam linebacker position this fall if he's medically cleared to play. Ball missed all of the 2011 season because of the arteriovenous malformation found in his brain in February of 2011, but Muschamp said Ball has recently started lifting and running again.

“He’s got one more appointment with the doctor,” Muschamp said. “I think he should be fine. He’s in Gainesville.

“You never know, something might pop up at the end. But he’s going back for one more deal to make sure he’s really cleared. Our medical people would not clear him if they thought there was an issue of any sort.

“I totally trust their opinion. Nor would he want to play if there was any chance for anything happening.”
Despite a record barely hovering above .500, Florida coach Will Muschamp has been pleased with how his team has performed in games and in practices.

Most harp on the wins and losses, but Muschamp said Wednesday that he looks at the bigger picture and to him, Florida is moving in the right direction. It might look like it’s moving at a snail’s pace, but Muschamp says it's going.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Kim Klement/US PresswireCoach Will Muschamp said he's happy with the direction the Gators are headed.
“We’ve improved our football team regardless of the results after the game,“ Muschamp said. “That’s what everybody wants to focus on that -- I do and I know that’s important -- but it’s also seeing the big picture and seeing where your football team is headed.

“When you have that taken from you or you lose that it’s a little bit frustrating, but we’ve had great work ethic all year. We’re developing battle scars, we’ve been through some tough times, but our approach and our preparation each week has been outstanding in my opinion.”

Expectations for the Gators should have been tempered from the start, considering 2011 is a transition year for Florida with a new coaching staff, but it just doesn’t work that way, especially in the SEC.

It’s hard to know where the Gators would really fit into the East race this weekend if senior quarterback John Brantley had been healthy all season. His ankle injury in the second quarter against Alabama sent Florida on a downward spiral offensively.

The Gators recovered slightly against Georgia when a hobbled Brantley returned, heavily taped ankle and all. Florida ultimately came up short, but Muschamp said having Brantley on the field makes Florida’s offense much more manageable considering his experience and his ability to make the reads and adjustments that the freshmen quarterbacks haven’t.

“I’m not offering up excuses, I’m just saying the facts,“ Muschamp said. “To get John back last week was very similar to what you saw earlier in the year -- a great mixture of run and pass with play-action. We’re a different team when we’re able to run the ball and play-action off of that. We can’t get predictable and one-dimensional in what we do.”

Rainey healed

  • Muschamp said that running back Chris Rainey (ankle) should be ready to play at South Carolina this weekend. Rainey sprained his ankle against Georgia and missed the Vanderbilt game last week.
  • Muschamp said Brantley should be fine after injuring his shoulder against the Commodores.
  • The only player whose playing status Muschamp was unsure about was linebacker Lerentee McCray, who was injured in the Georgia game and didn't dress for the Vanderbilt game.
Omar Hunter knows his time is running out.

Florida’s redshirt junior defensive lineman fought early hype and nagging injuries during his first three years with the Gators and now sees that he’s got to step up or sit and watch.

Hunter doesn’t want to do the latter. He had all the right to that this spring when a nagging injury returned. While he was listed as limited on Florida’s pre-spring depth chart, he pushed through the pain and competed as much as he could with a new coaching staff watching.

“It was tough, but they [the coaches] realized that I was injured and I was still trying to fight through some things,” Hunter said. “They let me off a few times on some things that they could have easily gotten on me for, but they understood I had an injury and took it easy on me a little bit.”

[+] EnlargeOmar Hunter
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesJunior Omar Hunter (99) fought through injuries this spring and is looking forward to making an impact in the fall.
Hunter, who is down to 300 pounds after working at 307 this spring, decided that participating would help him learn defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s new system and get him more familiar with defensive line coach Bryant Young’s new philosophy. If he was going to show the new staff he was ready to take his game to a new level, he had to do it -- hurt or not.

Hunter’s ability to stay on the practice field this spring also helped him gain more respect from his teammates. With depth issues and a gang of youngsters pushing for time on Florida’s line, Hunter wanted to not only show he wasn’t going to just hand his spot over, he wanted to prove that he was going to be a leader for the line.

“The message I tried to send was that I was going to be there whether I was hurt or not,” he said. “I’m always going to have their backs and I’m always going to push through injuries for them.”

The young talent certainly motivated Hunter. Regardless of how he felt physically, Hunter knew he’d have to fight off some pups this spring.

Leading the underclassmen charge is sophomore Sharrif Floyd, who will compete with Hunter for time at nose tackle when the Gators go into the 3-4. Dominique Easley, who blossomed this spring, and Leon Orr are also pushing for time on the interior.

Hunter is looking over his shoulder at those players, but he’s also helping them. While his goal is to be the disruptor in the middle, he wants what’s best for the team, and development of the younger players will be key to keeping Florida’s line fresh.

“I keep pushing them, they push me,” Hunter said. “We’re all getting better because of that.

“Last year, we were a close group, but we could have been closer. If we would have been closer, we would have been even better.”

The unit could be special, really. There is talent oozing at each position. Senior Jaye Howard, who ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper ranked as the fourth-best draft-eligible returner at defensive tackle, missed all of the spring because of surgery on his ankle, but is expected to be full-go for two-a-days. Senior William Green will maintain one of the end spots, and while he hasn’t truly broken out, he’ll fit nicely into Florida’s multiple defense.

Sophomore Ronald Powell will play the hybrid defensive end/linebacker position known as the Buck. He’s got all the athleticism and speed to be a menace in the pass rush, but he’s got to continue to mature. Cal transfer Chris Martin and junior Lerentee McCray will also get time at end.

Florida’s line is young, but the ceiling appears high for the unit. Barring injuries, this could be the strength of Florida’s defense in the fall.