Scott Fowler

He’s the Panthers’ best Charlottean you don’t know. Can he earn a spot at the table?

Carolina Panthers safety L.J. McCray is a Charlottean who went to high school at Harding and then to college at Catawba. His best chance to make the Panthers team will be to become a special-teams standout, which he was in San Francisco for two seasons before sustaining a knee injury that required three surgeries.
Carolina Panthers safety L.J. McCray is a Charlottean who went to high school at Harding and then to college at Catawba. His best chance to make the Panthers team will be to become a special-teams standout, which he was in San Francisco for two seasons before sustaining a knee injury that required three surgeries. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

This was in May, when I was talking with Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera about the special-teams prowess of new wide receiver Russell Shepard.

“Another guy you better keep an eye on for special teams for us is L.J. McCray,” Rivera said. “That might be someone to check out, because we sure are.”

L.J. McCray? I liked the way his name sounded – a mellifluous rhyme much like Shaquille O’Neal – but I didn’t know anything about him.

This was my fault, especially since McCray, a safety, is one of the few true Charlotteans who have ever been to training camp with the Panthers. Much like rookie wide receiver Austin Duke, McCray is as local to Charlotte as a tomato at an uptown farmer’s market. McCray went to high school at Harding and to college at Catawba.

“I’ve lived in Charlotte since I was five years old,” McCray said, although he also admits he grew up a Washington fan rather than a Panthers supporter due to an allegiance to his favorite player, safety Sean Taylor.

McCray is a special-teams demon who has already played in 22 NFL games in San Francisco. He made the 2014 49ers team as an undrafted free agent – one of only two players to do so that year for San Francisco – and became known as a gunner on the outside of punt coverages.

During his second year with the 49ers, McCray had current Panthers special-teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey as a special-teams coach (McGaughey was one of the reasons that McCray ended up with the Panthers). All was going well that year, in 2015, until midway through the season when he wrecked his right knee while covering a punt return.

That torn meniscus was so troublesome it required three surgeries over a 10-month span – one of them coming after McCray reinjured it during a 49ers practice. The rehab necessitated McCray missing the rest of the 2015 season and all of 2016, as well as an all-but-completed trade to Seattle being negated because he failed a physical.

So if McCray makes the Panthers team and plays in the opener Sept. 10 – at San Francisco, his old team – he will have gone 22 months between real games.

“Right now I’m just blessed to be back, healthy and with no problems with my knee at all,” McCray said.

McCray had another health scare Thursday in practice, when he was involved in a mid-air collision with wide receiver Damiere Byrd after breaking up a pass. McCray stayed down and got up gingerly – Rivera later said McCray was suffering from a back spasm at the time – but then returned to full-go practice about 20 minutes later and has been practicing ever since.

McCray is both friendly and confident.

How confident? I asked him what he thought his chances were of making the team.

“If you need a percentage, I’ll put them at about 90 percent,” McCray said. “Confident, but not overconfident.”

McCray grew up on the west side of Charlotte, raised by parents who he said have been married 22 years.

“I wouldn’t say we were poor, because my parents always worked,” McCray said. “My father works for US Foods in the freezer warehouse in Fort Mill and my mother works with

mentally ill patients.”

Although he played on a Harding team alongside another future NFL player in Walt Aikens – then the team’s quarterback and now a cornerback for the Miami Dolphins – McCray said his Harding teams were mostly “terrible.” He had larger schools interested in him than Division II Catawba College in Salisbury, 45 miles northeast of Charlotte. But he said he ended up with the Indians because he didn’t take grades or test scores seriously until his high-school senior year, and by then it was too late.

McCray spent five years at Catawba, including a medical redshirt year for a rib injury. He became known as a powerful safety with good returning and special-teams coverage ability.

The Panthers had kept an eye on him once San Francisco released him, and they signed him to a contract in January. The idea of playing in the 704 area code appealed greatly to McCray, who has been staying with his parents ever since.

“My mother didn’t really want me to get my own place – I had been gone long enough in San Francisco,” McCray said. “And who am I to turn down home cooking?”

At six feet and a listed 210 pounds, McCray said he sometimes plays at closer to 220 and certainly has the size to play both free and strong safety. He describes his style as “fast, physical and mean.”

Rivera said in his first meeting with the Panthers players this week that if any young guys wanted to impress him, they better do so on special teams.

That’s McCray’s goal – and the way he plans to make this team.

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