GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – There is a quiet calmness over Lerentee McCray as he stares at the TV screen. McCray is in the Gators’ locker room about to dress for practice.
On the screen is No. 34 for the Gators. That would be him. As a replay of Florida’s 37-20 win over Tennessee three days earlier plays on the TV, ESPN announcers Brad Nessler and Todd Blackledge discuss McCray’s impact on the game. It’s late in the fourth quarter and Florida is in control.
Standing alone, McCray looks on no differently than if a PBS special on the Dalai Lama was airing. He is asked if he usually watches replays of Florida’s games.
“I watch the game film,’’ he said. “I don’t watch them on TV.”
ESPN shows a replay of his first-quarter interception of Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray and his second-half hit on Bray that forced another interception. Both plays led to Florida touchdowns as the Gators won their eighth in a row over the Vols.
Soon, McCray walks away without a trace of emotion.
That doesn’t surprise Dunnellon High coach Frank Beasley. McCray was a down-to-earth player at Dunnellon who worked hard, played fast and led by his actions rather than his words.
“He was always a really mature kid when he was here and understood the process,’’ Beasley said. “He’s definitely had his ups and downs while he’s been there [at UF]. I think it’s a credit to him and his family and his mother that he has persevered through a lot of different things. Here he is, in his fifth year, he is doing really well.”
Yes he is.
Three games into the season, the fifth-year senior defensive end/linebacker has been the kind of impact player the Gators envisioned when they moved him from linebacker to the buck position in place of injured Ronald Powell. McCray has taken well to the role of pass-rush specialist.
“He brings it all the time,’’ Gators defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “He provides a lot of energy for our team by the way he plays, the way he rushes. He adds toughness to our team.”
McCray is also athletic enough to drop into coverage the way he did Saturday when he drifted off the line once the ball was snapped and picked off Bray, returning the interception 25 yards to Tennessee’s 35-yard line. Three plays later Trey Burton scored on a 14-yard run to quiet the crowd of more than 102,000 at Neyland Stadium.
McCray is filling up the stat sheet early in the season. He has nine tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one sack, an interception, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries. Not a bad start for a player coming off shoulder surgery. McCray missed four of the last five games of his junior season and then missed spring practice while recovering from surgery.
“Right now he’s rushing the passer extremely well, he’s a threat on the edge but he’s also a heavy handed guy,’’ Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “He can really get his hands on people and get them off of you. He’s a guy that can convert speed to power in the rush, which is critical in being a speed rusher.
“I think he’s progressed, I really do.”
Much of McCray’s drive comes from back home and the woman of the house, his mother, Sybill McCray. Sybill raised Lerentee and his two brothers in a single-parent home.
Trouble was always near but Lerentee used football as his primary outlet, playing receiver, safety and linebacker at Dunnellon.
“When Lerentee graduated from here, he was about 198 pounds,’’ Beasley said. “He was a big athlete. He has gotten much bigger.”
McCray is now listed at 6-foot-3, 249 pounds, first playing for the Gators as a true freshman in 2008 on special teams. While injuries and position changes have hampered his career at Florida, McCray began to emerge when Muschamp and Quinn arrived. As a junior McCray finished with a career-high 24 tackles, 7 ½ for loss.
“I have a lot of motivation coming from the family that I come from," McCray said. “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 [made me grow up fast]."
When McCray runs out of the tunnel at The Swamp on Saturday for Florida’s game against Kentucky, his older brother, 24-year-old Leonardo Simpkins, will be only an hour away. But Simpkins won’t be attending McCray’s Senior Day or any games for that matter.
Simpkins is locked up at the Suwanee Correctional Institute in Live Oak on an armed robbery charge from 2007. He isn’t scheduled to be released until October 2027. McCray looked up to Simpkins growing up, but the summer before McCray’s senior year at Dunnellon, Simpkins got into the kind of trouble McCray sought to avoid.
They still write each other and stay in contact when they can.
“He’s definitely keeping up with the games,” McCray said. “He definitely has some people in there that don’t like the Gators, so he has to deal with that sometimes.’’
McCray is now in the role big brother, his younger brother is a defensive end at Dunnellon. Beasley said he was surprised to hear that McCray shared his older brother’s story but isn’t concerned about McCray taking a wrong turn toward what could be a future in the NFL.
“He’s not a kid anymore,’’ Beasley said. “He’s a grown man. He is a real hard worker.”
Muschamp echoed Beasley’s sentiments.
“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."
McCray hopes all the hard work pays off with an NFL career and the ability to help Sybill the way she helped him growing up. That would be a perfect ending on this up-and-down journey of his.
“The most difficult point was hearing everybody back home just asking my mom what is going on with me and all that," McCray said of times when he was not a factor. “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."