Mailbag: The Development of Mike McCray

Mailbag: The Development of Mike McCray

January 17, 2018

Mike McCray

Here’s a question from mejunglechop:

Hi Thunder, huge fan, but this is my first time commenting. I apologize in advance for the number of questions.

First I’ll say I really enjoyed reading through your original Hello post. It was interesting that your rating, although, controversially low at the time, turned out to be prescient. McCray has turned into a good Big Ten starter with some NFL draft potential.

My big question(s) for you looking back :
Originally you thought McCray’s best fit might come at SAM as you thought this would maximize the strengths you saw in his tape (straight line speed combined with size and coverage instincts) while mitigating his weaknesses (forcing him to play more aggressive and downhill). McCray eventually became a very good downhill Mike. Do you think this is more attributable to Don Brown’s scheme and how he uses his Mikes, or McCray developing better instincts reading run plays? If Mike McCray was a prospect being signed today do you think the staff would recruit and develop him for a Noah Furbush style SAM role or would they see him as a Mike prospect?

Check out the answer below the jump.

First of all, I would like to disagree slightly with the premise that McCray turned into a very good downhill Mike. He played WILL linebacker throughout the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and that’s a different spot than MIKE. While there has been an insistence that the inside linebacker spots are interchangeable, that the safety spots are interchangeable, etc., I can say as a coach that there is always a reason a player is chosen for one spot over another. Coaches don’t pick their right guard and left guard randomly, they don’t pick their boundary corner and field corner by flipping a coin, etc. The coaching staff picked Ben Gedeon to play MIKE (and he’s starting some games in the NFL this year as a rookie), and they picked Devin Bush, Jr. in 2017 (and he earned some All-America hype). Meanwhile, McCray was “just” honorable mention all-conference and it’s unclear whether he will get drafted or not.

Therefore, I’ll address this question as asking about “inside linebacker” vs. 4-3 Under SAM.

I don’t think McCray was great at diagnosing inside running plays and stepping up to meet fullbacks, linemen, and running backs in the hole. Defensive coordinator Don Brown has his linebackers constantly attacking the line of scrimmage, and that’s evidenced by McCray’s tackle-for-loss numbers (31 career). Michigan has also had great defensive line play over the past couple years, and it was tough to get outside of the ends. Weakside end Chase Winovich did a much better job in 2017 of keeping things hemmed in, and that helped McCray play in confined space. I do believe McCray got better at reading his keys, but I probably wouldn’t count it as a strength.

As I mentioned in McCray’s senior profile, he looked like a potential SAM coming out of high school, but that position has somewhat disappeared over the past few years. NFL teams and college teams are playing more hybrid players, smaller guys who can cover and play in space. Michigan hasn’t really recruited the SAM-type linebackers we used to see, even from Brady Hoke, who were quasi-defensive ends, like Brennen Beyer, Jake Ryan, etc. That’s the coach who brought in Beyer, Furbush, etc. McCray’s shoulder injury would probably make it even tougher to play SAM than it would MIKE, because SAM linebackers in an Under defense often use their shoulders to take on blockers so they can keep outside contain, or they “wrong-shoulder” kick-out blocks to spill running plays.

Current defensive coordinator Don Brown uses those hybrid players like Jabrill Peppers, Khaleke Hudson, and others to play the Viper role. They have also groomed Joshua Uche for the role, but he’s more of a pass rushing specialist since he doesn’t have the coverage chops of Peppers and Hudson. Uche is listed at 6’3″, 217 lbs., which is 1″ and 31 lbs. smaller than McCray. He’s also 2″ shorter and 21 lbs. lighter than Noah Furbush. Furbush is unique, in my opinion, because I think he’s a player that Don Brown found a role for that wasn’t necessarily a fit for his scheme. Michigan has used him as an outside linebacker, a defensive end, and an inside linebacker. If Michigan intended to replace Furbush, I would think we would see the Wolverines bringing in more 6’5″, 240 lb. linebacker types who could be groomed to take over the role after Furbush graduates. As things stand right now, Furbush will play out his eligibility in 2018, and nobody else on the roster will be primed to play his various roles.

To answer your question more specifically for the current moment, I don’t really know if Michigan would recruit McCray, period. Based on the other players they have recruited and brought in, I don’t think they’re in love with 6’4″ linebackers who are going to push 250 lbs. And oh by the way, they haven’t tried too hard to recruit Ohio, either. If McCray were a class of 2018 kid, I think there’s a very good chance that he would not have been offered by this coaching staff.


  1. Comments: 1152
    Joined: 8/13/2015
    Jan 17, 2018 at 7:36 AM

    If you believe Alan Trieu, among other things, Al Washington was brought in to compete in Ohio, so on the last point, maybe to probably. On the first however, Brown is hunting up LBs that can get there now. McCray gets there in a second or two.

    I do think that the shoulder was a much bigger deal than people think. A linebacker with a damaged shoulder is mostly a candidate for a student coaching position. I give the kid a lot of credit for just getting on the field.

    • Thunder
      Comments: 2723
      Joined: 7/13/2015
      Jan 17, 2018 at 11:10 AM

      I hope Washington can improve our recruiting in Ohio. I’ll concede that Ohio State is going to get the pick of the litter (with an occasional guy like Jackson Carman going to Clemson), but Michigan should be getting that second tier of Ohio guys, along with an occasional dude with an OSU offer (like Kyle Kalis). Ohio is too close and too talent-rich of a state to be ignoring almost completely. It seems like this staff has mostly just been throwing out half-hearted offers in the Buckeye State, like, “Hey, look, we tried!”

  2. Comments: 3
    Joined: 1/12/2018
    Jan 17, 2018 at 9:19 AM

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Thunder. You make a good point about the coaches protecting McCray from the physicality of the Mike spot. It’s a point lost on more casual observers like me.

    And it’s funny, although my question was about McCray I was thinking a lot about Furbush when I asked it so I’m glad you addressed him. It’s interesting to me that although we might not even recruit McCray and Furbush in the present day they both featured heavily this year. I guess Brown found a role unique to Furbush’s skill set and McCray was just a much better player than his backups.

  3. Comments: 105
    Joined: 10/22/2015
    Jan 17, 2018 at 11:58 AM

    Love these kinds of articles! Do more of these please…. 🙂

    • Thunder
      Comments: 2723
      Joined: 7/13/2015
      Jan 17, 2018 at 12:04 PM

      Yeah, it was fun to do. Feel free to send me requests/mailbag questions (not just you, SinCityBlue, but anyone). It gets a little mundane at times just doing the regular weekly posts. Now that it’s the off-season, there’s a little more freedom.

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