LSU’s McCray makes impact as safety, cornerback
By RANDY ROSETTA
Published: Sep 27, 2007
Some day, LSU sophomore Danny McCray might be the Tigers best cover back or hardest-hitting safety or even a disruptive hybrid of those two.
For now, though, McCray is pretty happy doing a little of all of the above and doing it quite well.
Labeled as LSU’s nickel back on the depth chart, McCray is part safety, part cornerback and part blitzing linebacker.
He’s also a major reason the Tigers defense has carved a spot as one of the country’s best units through four games.
“Danny is like a wild card for us,” LSU strong safety Craig Steltz said. “He does a lot of different things really well. He’s like a big corner, a fast safety who can cover and he loves to hit like a linebacker.”
Mix it all up and the bottom line is impressive for a player who has yet to start a game for the country’s top-rated defense.
“Someday I’d like to have a shot at being a full-time safety,” McCray said. “But as long as I’m getting on the field, I’m having fun.”
Having fun and piling up tackles.
McCray (6-foot-1, 206 pounds) has recorded 19 solo tackles and six assisted stops this season to rank second on the team behind Ali Highsmith (19-12-31).
As the wild card that Steltz spoke of, McCray is often called on to blitz, which has led to three sacks — which matches Glenn Dorsey for the second most in the Southeastern Conference.
McCray’s face lights up when he talks about LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini’s aggressive scheme and the fact he’s often in position to blitz or stunt in zone coverage.
“When I go out on the field, I just look at the safeties and let them tell me when I’m going,” McCray said with a smile. “I get real excited when I know I’m going to get the chance to make a play.”
Not that McCray’s big-play potential is limited to blitzing.
Last week against South Carolina, he was more involved in pass coverage and came up with his second interception of the season on a circus-like grab.
McCray batted the ball away from the Gamecocks receiver and fell to his knees but stayed focused enough to hop back up and pluck the ball out of the air after teammate Curtis Taylor deflected the ball to keep it alive.
Although McCray said he should have snagged the interception on the first chance, he pointed out that his pass coverage skills are just as important as what he does as a pass rusher.
“As a nickel back you’ve got to have speed to cover a receiver, and you’ve got to be physical enough to play in the box to defend the run,” he said.
“With the defense we play here, you have to have a lot of range to play sideline to sideline.”
LSU head coach Les Miles said he and his staff realized McCray was a “tremendous athlete” when he participated in a summer camp on campus before his senior year of high school.
“We expected a lot from him,” Miles said, “and to go with real ability, he has a real maturity in learning and understanding football.”
Miles said McCray arrived at LSU at an advanced position of physical strength.
“Young guys that have speed, have the ability to flip their hips and have size,” Miles said, “don’t necessarily have strength. It just takes time. He came in with really good numbers in the weight room.
“We expected him to play well. He played a lot in his first game and played in his true freshman year, and we expect him to play a lot of football while he’s here. We enjoy Danny McCray.”
As important as all the physical tools are for a nickel back, it’s also useful to have things like patience and humility.
By definition, the nickel back is the extra defender — the guy unable to get on the field with the starting unit.
That’s understandable when you consider three of LSU’s starters in the secondary are seniors and the fourth, Taylor, is one of the Tigers most athletic players.
McCray not cracking the official starting lineup isn’t because he’s less talented than those four.
To the contrary, his versatility makes him better suited to manning the nickel spot, much like it did with Steltz, who played a similar role the last two years behind LaRon Landry and Jessie Daniels.
“It takes some patience to play the nickel back and you have to stay focused on the game because you never know when coach Pelini is going to call a package where you need to go on the field,” Steltz said.
“That’s something Danny understands real well about his role and when he’s not in the game, he’s usually standing right next to (Pelini) so he can be prepared for whatever he needed to do next.”
Meanwhile, McCray is also using his role as the nickel back as an apprenticeship of sorts.
He said when he’s not on the field, he’s taking “mental reps” — learning and memorizing where he needs to be in certain situations when he is called on to play safety.
In practice, he makes sure he lines up opposite of veteran receivers like Early Doucet and Brandon LaFell to sharpen his pass coverage skills.
“There are always going to be opportunities to play in every game and I want to make sure I’m ready,” he said. “I want to be able to go out there with confidence because I know my technique is as good as it can be.”
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