CHAMPAIGN — Josh McCray took the handoff from Brandon Peters and broke through the line of scrimmage between Illinois offensive linemen Alex Pihlstrom and Jack Badovinac midway through the third quarter of the Sept. 17 game against Maryland.
McCray planted his right foot and cut left to avoid what would have been the Terrapins’ first tackle attempt. The rest of the tries were just as unsuccessful.
McCray then shook off arm tackle after arm tackle. The 6-foot-1, 240-pound freshman running back added in a late stiff arm for good measure to cross the goal line seven seconds and 38 yards later for his first career Illinois touchdown.
“I’m from ‘Bama,” McCray said earlier this week. “Arm tackles don’t faze me.”
Little has fazed McCray since he broke into Illinois’ running back rotation in the second game of the season. The Enterprise, Ala., native rushed five times for 16 yards against Texas San Antonio in his debut on Sept. 4 — one of the only signs of life early in that game for the Illini offense — and has only seen his role increase since.
McCray is one of four Illinois running backs with 100-plus yards through four games, but he’s averaging a team-best 5.5 yards per carry.
It’s the type of production the Illini (1-3, 1-1 Big Ten) could need heading into their 2:30 p.m. Saturday game at Purdue (2-1). Particularly when you consider Illinois’ last two wins at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind., came with Dre Brown rushing for 131 yards in 2019 and Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Josh Ferguson combining for 313 rushing yards and two touchdowns in 2015.
“I tell them when the opportunity knocks, you’ve got to be ready to go,” Illinois running backs coach Cory Patterson said. “Whoever it is, when opportunity arises, you’ve got to be ready to go. The thing happened for Josh. The opportunity came, and he was fired up and ready to go. He prepared all week well, and when his opportunity came, he jumped out there and did what we knew he could do.”
McCray was on his way to even more of a breakout game against Maryland before an undisclosed injury sent him to the hospital late last Friday night as a precaution.
“They just wanted to check up on me and make sure I was OK,” McCray said. “It was nothing major. … I kept telling them in the hospital and kept saying, ‘Can y’all show me the score?’ They were trying to undress me and all that. I just kept asking them what was the score. When I found out we had lost by a field goal, it hurt.”
Even in a shortened game that ended with the Illini losing 20-17, McCray was productive. He finished with eight carries for 60 yards and his long touchdown run. He also had a 40-yard reception where he caught a screen pass from Peters on a broken play and turned it into a positive.
It’s what Illinois coach Bret Bielema envisioned when he recruited McCray out of Alabama in late December, shortly after Illinois hired the former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach. The story behind McCray’s recruitment is well told at his point. One of his coaches at Enterprise, Jed Kennedy, coached Melvin Gordon before the latter went on to a rather impressive career at Wisconsin playing for Bielema.
Other schools were recruiting McCray as a linebacker.
Kennedy, knowing Bielema’s preferences when it came to running backs, fostered the connection.
That didn’t mean McCray had a straightforward path to playing time this season. The combination of summer workouts and the early days of fall training camp didn’t exactly put McCray on that path.
“You never know what freshmen are going to do — especially at the running back position,” Illinois offensive coordinator Tony Petersen said. “When he first came in and was here in the summer and started going through camp, I was watching his maturity, just his body language and everything. I was like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t see it this year.’”
The perception of McCray began to change as training camp turned into preparation for the Week 0 opener. McCray didn’t play against Nebraska, but it was a close decision.
“I think that first game that he was on the bubble of playing in,” Bielema said, “I think that sparked something in him about the way he practiced.”
“All of a sudden it was like this kid might be able to play this year,” Petersen added. “He might be ready. You get him in the game and start giving him the football. Every week you know without a doubt he’s ready to go and be a main back for us.”
Illinois has used six running backs so far this season. Injuries have forced the Illini’s hand in some instances, with Chase Brown, Chase Hayden, Mike Epstein and McCray all missing time through the first four games.
Petersen said he was looking to narrow his running back rotation heading into last week’s game against Maryland. Then both Brown and McCray were forced out of the game. They’re both healthy and available for Saturday’s game at Purdue. It won’t be a surprise to see them shoulder most of the run game workload.
Brown returned this season as Illinois’ top running back. McCray has quickly emerged as another legitimate option.
“Just to be a couple weeks in, he’s really picked up some things, and we feel comfortable with him out there,” Patterson said. “Being a big athlete, you always want to have them out there. When you see him out there, you’re like, ‘Yeah, he’s ready to go.’ It’s on us now to get him going a little bit more in the playbook.”