GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Florida's Ronald Powell suffered a torn ACL in the spring game in April, the Gators' biggest question mark on defense became the pass rush.
Turns out they already had the answer.
Redshirt senior linebacker Lerentee McCray slid into Powell's spot at buck and has become the Gators' best pass rusher. It's a role his coaches and teammates believe he would have had a long time ago had he not been hampered by injuries throughout his career.
"Last year he started off the season pretty much playing the best on defense," linebacker Jon Bostic said. "I wish he wouldn't have gotten hurt, but coming back from the injury we knew he was going to be back to the old Lerentee.
"He pretty much can do it all. He can drop in coverage. He can rush the quarterback. He's physical. He's pretty much everything you want in a player."
It took the 6-foot-2, 247-pound McCray a while to get there, though. First he had to get bigger physically. He played mostly on special teams as a freshman in 2008 as an undersized linebacker, but gained 25 pounds in the offseason. He played in three games in 2009 before receiving a medical redshirt, and then played in 10 games on special teams and as a reserve in 2010 but missed three games with an ankle injury.
He was starting to come into his own in 2011 -- he started five games and made 24 tackles and one sack -- before a shoulder injury cost him the final four games of the season.
It was another setback, but McCray never got discouraged.
"The more difficult point was hearing everybody back home talking to my parents and stuff and just asking my mom what is going on with me and all that," McCray said. "That and just a couple of injuries that bumped me down the road. That's been the hardest part, but I have been able to overcome it."
McCray's motivation to keep working through his injuries to get where he is now? His family: his mother Sybil McCray, 17-year-old brother Dana Washington and 24-year-old brother Leonardo Simpkins. His mother and younger brother are the reason he's at Florida and not Miami, which is where he had always wanted to go. McCray, from nearby Dunnellon, said he chose to go to Florida so he could remain close to them.
He said that's partly to make up for his older brother's absence. Simpkins has been arrested numerous times and is incarcerated in the Suwannee Correctional Institution in Live Oak, Fla., after having been convicted of armed robbery, cocaine possession and obstructing a criminal investigation.
"I have a lot of motivation coming from the family that I come from," said McCray, who comes from a single-parent home. "My oldest brother I looked up to, he went to jail when I was in high school and he's still locked up to this day. So just not having him there, just having to step up and kind of be the man of my house (is important)."
McCray has certainly stepped up on the field. Though he has just one sack and two hurries, he has one interception and caused another by pressuring Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray.
"Right now, he's rushing the passer extremely well," UF coach Will Muschamp said. "He's a threat off the edge, but he's also a heavy-handed guy. He can really get his hands on people and get them off of him. He's a guy that can convert speed to power in the rush, which is critical for a speed rusher."
McCray spends extra time with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn watching film and working on his pass-rush moves. They've worked on him using his hands to keep offensive linemen from grabbing him so he can get by the edge quickly.
That's not anything new, though. Even when he was battling injuries, McCray was always doing extra work, Muschamp said.
"He's a guy that goes out and works hard every day," Muschamp said. "He's a great example for our football team and our younger players."