Marc Lebryk / USA TODAY Sports
A shoulder injury slowed the start of the 2016 season for IU’s Robert McCray III, missing the first four games before finally getting his first snaps of the season in Week 5.
Now healthy, the senior defensive lineman is focused on perfecting his craft during spring ball. It’s his first spring camp he’s entered healthy since 2015.
“I just want to focus on, not so much pass rush all the time, but getting stronger with run defense,” McCray said. “Learning my technique and doing my job on defense, learning everything I’ve got to do with my plays.”
Despite missing the first four weeks of the season, McCray collected eight tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss, four quarterback hurries and one pass breakup over the final nine games.
McCray knows his role this spring, evident in what he said he want to focus on individually. That lesson was learned during those four weeks he was sidelined with the shoulder injury in 2016.
Instead of moping during that time, he spent as much energy as possible encouraging his teammates.
“Of course you’re going to feel a little left out, but for the most part you’ve got to play your part no matter what’s going on,” McCray said. “I was hurt, and you kind of get a little selfish, but you’ve got to learn to be a good teammate and cheer those guys on.”
Having a positive frame of mind can be challenging in those circumstances, especially for someone like McCray.
The Rockdale, Georgia, native also missed the entire 2016 spring season with a turf toe injury.
IU defensive line coach Mark Hagen said it’s important that players have the right mindset when they’re sidelined due to injury, such as looking at the positive aspects of it.
“Still try to grow as player while you’re not out there, but then do what [the trainers] are asking you to do to get back,” Hagen said. “So it’s hard. He was a guy that put a lot of time. He missed the spring, had a really good summer, and then, boom, after four [fall] practices is sidelined again. That’s a lot mentally to handle.”
The selfless attitude McCray learned while sidelined last fall paid off.
Hagen said McCray continued to grow and learn the defense while out, showing that same attitude when he decided probably sooner than he should have from the shoulder injury.
McCray also recognized the importance of using his time away from the field to studying the defense.
“Even though you’re out, you kind of feel like you don’t have to do anything, but you definitely have to get stronger where you can,” he said. “Like, say my shoulder’s messed up, I had my legs right, my other arm, stuff like that, stay conditioned. Then you’ve got to learn your plays, for sure. You don’t want to come back and not know any plays.”
His return, according to Hagen, allowed the defensive line to establish the depth it sought.
“We needed him,” Hagen said. “Did a great job. Certainly wasn’t perfect, but having his size and his athleticism really allowed us to play that 8-10 guys that we needed to on a game-by-game basis. That was important.”
Indiana finished fifth in the Big Ten in total sacks with 33 last season. Now-graduated defensive lineman Pat Dougherty was just as critical as McCray to that production last season.
Dougherty’s play last year also served as an example for McCray.
“I just learned from him. He’s a selfless guy,” McCray said. “You’ve really got to be selfless and be a good teammate.”
Now it’s McCray’s turn to be that example.
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