ANN ARBOR, Mich. — This fall, weekend trips mean business for Michigan linebacker Mike McCray.
When the No. 4 Wolverines travel to New Jersey on Friday to face Rutgers this weekend, McCray won’t ask for a side trip to nearby New York City. He won’t yearn for a stop at a diner off the New Jersey Turnpike.
Instead, he and Michigan (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten Conference) will face the Scarlet Knights (2-3, 0-2) at 7 p.m. Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, N.J.
Still, McCray relishes any opportunity he gets to travel, whether it’s getting in the car, getting on the bus or boarding a plane.
“I’ve always loved going on the road, even in high school,” McCray said. “It’s going to be fun.”
But if he needed a place to get away, to relax, McCray has a couple of tropical venues in mind.
“Either Hawaii or the Bahamas,” McCray said. “It just looks like it’s fun, a place I can have a great time and relax.”
Michigan doesn’t have games scheduled in the Pacific or the Caribbean this season. The Garden State will have to suffice this weekend for McCray, a redshirt junior from Trotwood, Ohio, and the son of former Ohio State captain Mike McCray Sr.
In fact, it was a visit McCray made to Ann Arbor for Michigan’s first game under the stadium lights — a 35-31 win against Notre Dame on Sept. 10, 2011 — that swayed McCray. He visited Michigan with high school teammate Cameron Burrows (who now plays at Ohio State), and took in the lights, the noise and the ambiance of a night game at Michigan Stadium.
He returned to suburban Dayton enamored with Michigan. In March 2012, he verbally committed to join the Wolverines.
“Dad was a little shocked at first,” McCray said. “When I came back, I had a lot of Michigan stuff on and he was just looking at me, like, ‘What’s going on?’
“Now, he’s really happy I came here.”
After redshirting in 2013, he played sparingly in 2014, registering two tackles, then sat out last season with an injury to his right shoulder.
That path has helped McCray become one of the key players among Michigan’s front seven. And that time off humbled him.
“I’m just not taking anything for granted,” McCray said. “You get a serious injury, and you never know if you’re going to be able to play again. Me, coming back now, it’s humbled me a lot better than anything has before. I’m just grateful.”
And the shoulder?
“It feels great,” McCray said, grinning and flexing his right shoulder and arm. “No problems at all.”
This season, McCray is part of a linebacking unit that lost three of its top players to graduation — Joe Bolden, James Ross III and Desmond Morgan — and a unit that faced some skepticism.
That skepticism fueled McCray. It fueled his teammates, particularly Ben Gedeon and Jabrill Peppers. The trio has combined for 109 tackles in Michigan’s first five games (McCray has 28 tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception) and has helped Michigan to the No. 2 defense in the Big Ten (247.6 yards) and the No. 5 defense in the nation, according to NCAA statistics.
Each linebacker brings his own dimension to the unit.
At strong-side linebacker and in a pass-rushing role, Peppers is versatile and dynamic.
At middle linebacker, Gedeon is stoic and task-oriented.
At weak-side linebacker, McCray brings a sense of purpose.
“He’s played great this year,” linebacker Noah Furbush said. “He’s played so well for our defense when we needed him to step up. He’s done that. He’s stepped into the role of a leader. Everyone looks up to him and looks for him to lead our defense.”
What makes McCray a leader, Furbush said, is that he can balance being vocal and being a teammate who sets an example without saying much.
“He demands the best that any of us can give, every time he’s out there. And he leads by example by playing the best he can.”
And McCray does it, regardless of whatever town, city or state he’s in.