GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Lerentee McCray certainly looked the part at last week’s SEC Football Media Days.
Dressed in a dark pinstripe suit, crisp purple dress shirt and smooth silky tie, McCray roamed from interview to interview as if he had been there, done that.
The truth is McCray’s UF career remains rooted in potential more than production. In 30 games over the past four seasons, the fifth-year senior has managed a modest 40 tackles.
“I want to take advantage of this opportunity,’’ he said. “This is it for me. I definitely want to have a good season and help this program get back on top.”
McCray’s low profile compared to some of his teammates didn’t stop Gators coach Will Muschamp from bringing him to the league’s annual media bonanza to face the bright lights in Hoover, Ala. If the Gators are going to fulfill their promise in 2012, Muschamp knows McCray will need to fill his.
“He’s a guy I think can be a very productive player for us this year,’’ Muschamp said. “He works extremely hard and is a great example of the kind of young man we want at Florida. I’m expecting a big year out of him.”
Ditto for the guy who showed up at Florida four years ago barely weighing 200 pounds. McCray stuffed 253 pounds into that swanky suit last week following an intense offseason spent primarily in the weight room bulking up for what he hopes is a big senior season.
After an injury plagued junior campaign that caused McCray to miss four games, he underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason and missed spring practice. Muschamp said McCray could have probably participated in spring drills but that he took the cautionary route.
Muschamp knows McCray’s value on a defense that returns 10 starters from a year ago. However, one of those starters, hybrid linebacker/defensive end Ronald Powell, won’t be available to start the season due to a knee injury he suffered in the Orange & Blue Debut in April.
Powell’s injury instantly added to McCray’s role.
“He will play Sam [strongside linebacker] in our regular package, then when we get to our sub-packages, he’ll play the Buck [pass-rush specialist],’’ Muschamp said. “I’m very comfortable with Lerentee at either position.”
McCray played in nine games a year ago, starting five. He finished tied for the team lead with four quarterback hurries and fifth with 7 ½ tackles-for-loss. McCray provided a glimpse of what he can do at the Buck position with Powell hurt for the game at Auburn.
McCray finished with four tackles – two that went for a loss – and recorded one quarterback hurry. It was the kind of performance fellow linebacker Jon Bostic believes McCray is ready to produce consistently.
“He has come a long way,’’ Bostic said. “It’s a big blow for us [losing Powell]. We lost a great player but we think we have another one ready to step up.”
McCray grew up not too far down Interstate-75 from Gainesville in Dunnellon. He was named first-team All-State in Class 3A after averaging 17 tackles per game as a senior. McCray also played offense, rushing for more than 500 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The future was as bright as the sun hanging over The Swamp when he arrived at Florida in 2008. He played in eight games as a true freshman and then saw action in three as a sophomore until an injury ended his season. He was redshirted and returned in a more prominent role in 2010 when he played 10 games.
Perhaps the biggest play of McCray’s UF career came in the 2011 Outback Bowl when he scooped up a blocked punt and raced 27 yards for a touchdown in Florida’s 37-24 win over Penn State in Urban Meyer’s final game at Florida.
Finally a regular starter as a junior, injuries prevented McCray from having the kind of season he envisioned.
“I had to wait my turn,’’ said the 6-foot-2 McCray. “It’s my last year and I want to make an impact. I’m definitely ready for the season to start and to have an opportunity to be a playmaker.”
McCray’s combination of speed and size make him an intriguing prospect. He is fast enough to get around the edge and make the quarterback’s life uneasy, and big enough to shed SEC offensive linemen and make stops in the running game.
He’s adopted the team motto – “start fast and physical” – as his own, too.
“You never know when the last time could be,’’ he said. “An injury can come at any time. Getting hurt and not being able to play is never fun.”
As McCray made the rounds at SEC Media Days, it was clear he was having fun. He mingled in between interviews, flashed a big grin and cast a portrait of someone who belonged.
All that’s left now is for McCray to prove it on the field.
“There have been ups and downs,’’ he said. “It’s time to step up and help this team be as good as we know we can be.”