Lerentee McCray waited by the phone for three days, hoping to be selected in the National Football League Draft. The call never came, but McCray became one of the most sought-after undrafted free agents available and landed with the Denver Broncos. It was all the result of an up-and-down five years at Florida that culminated with the redshirt senior year he had hoped for all along.
Parting Thoughts caught up with McCray to reflect on all of it.
ITG: You grew up right down I-75 in Marion County. Have you lived there your whole life, and if so, did you grow up following the Gators?
McCray: "I've pretty much been in Marion County my whole life. I stayed in other places for a couple months, but Marion County has been my home for most of my life. Actually growing up, I was a Miami Hurricanes fan. I kind of got waivered a little bit in high school and I started liking Florida. But I grew up being a Miami Hurricanes fan."
ITG: What was it like when these state schools you grew up watching started showing up in your living room to recruit you?
McCray: "It was a dream come true. It was something that I had always dreamed about and I had always wanted. But coming from a small town like Ocala and Marion County, there wasn't a whole lot of people before me. I was actually one of the first people that actually experienced what I got to experience, being recruited by all three of the Florida schools."
ITG: Tell me what Urban Meyer was like as a coach and your first impressions of him when you met him.
McCray: "Coach Meyer has always been good to me. He's always kept it straight with me. Ever since I met him, he's been a good person. He's also a great coach. He's one of the reasons I came to the University of Florida and he was everything I thought he would be."
ITG: A lot of guys have talked about how weird of a time 2009 was. You were going through a medical redshirt that year. What was that time like for you?
McCray: "That year was kind of an awkward year. Just coming in my freshman year, we had just won the national championship. Just having everybody from that team come back except for four or five people, pretty much the whole defense came back. I kind of had to figure out whether I was going to redshirt or waste another year and be a backup again. Then coach Meyer stepped down, so it was kind of an awkward year."
ITG: I can't imagine 2010 was much different. Those two years seemed fairly unstable.
McCray: "Definitely. His final year was an awkward year also. Just being able to go to the Outback Bowl with coach Joe Paterno in his last game and coach Meyer in his last game at Florida and being able to win it. It made the year better than what it was because it was actually an up-and-down year for us. We had a lot of games that we felt like we could have won and we could have gotten to a better bowl game. But there was nothing better than going out in coach Meyer's last game and Joe Paterno's last game and coming out with a victory."
ITG: How difficult was it to deal with another season of injuries in 2011?
McCray: "Yeah, 2011 was real frustrating for me because that was the year where I thought I was going to have a breakout season, and then I kind of got plagued with injuries toward the middle of the season. It was definitely something I had to overcome and it was an uphill battle from there."
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ITG: You seem like one of the guys who embraced the arrival of Will Muschamp. Is that accurate?
McCray: "I love to play for coach Muschamp. It's one of those things that I wanted after coach Meyer left was to get a players' coach. Coach Muschamp came in and he was just that. He did everything it took for us to be successful. He made everything more happy and fun. It was a fun experience for us coming in and getting to work with a defensive coach. He made the transition well. He just made it good for us."
ITG: Everybody seemed to really gravitate toward Dan Quinn from the time he got to UF. Why was that?
McCray: "I love coach Quinn. I have nothing bad to say about Dan Quinn. That's like my brother from another mother. He was like my older brother. He taught me the ropes and showed me everything. He showed me a lot about the game of football and a lot of stuff off the field. He taught me how to be a man. He taught me how to deal with stuff in certain situations. He never wavered from being the person he was from the day I met him to the day he stopped coaching me. He was always the same person. He always remained humble and was always a people's person with whoever he coached."
ITG: Did you talk to Quinn much during the lead-up to the NFL Draft?
McCray: "I kept in touch with him. I probably talked to him once every week leading up to the draft. He'd just call me and check on me and see if everything was alright. We talked on draft day, the days leading up to draft day, we definitely kept in close contact. I almost made the quick decision to go out there and play for him in Seattle before I decided to come to Denver."
ITG: What was going through your mind when Ronald Powell tore his ACL during last year's spring game? It was a big loss for the team but it also opened the door for you to have a prominent role at Buck linebacker in 2012.
McCray: "When you lose a guy like that, it's definitely detrimental to the team. Him playing, he could have brought one more diverse person to the number of people that we had on defense. We would have definitely been more strong with 11 people on the field if he was there, but it's kind of a devastating loss and we had to fight through it the whole season."
ITG: After all you had gone through, how good was it to start 12 games in 2012 and play almost a full season healthy?
McCray: "Coming off 2011, I feel like started off the year well. Coming into 2012, my main goal was just to stay healthy and stay out of the training room. That's what I felt like I had to do."
ITG: How different was the 2012 team from the 2011 team?
McCray: "It was just a part of the team growing up, just a part of the team coming into ourselves; us bonding and having that year where we were at the bottom and everybody had us on the backburner. We knew we weren't that caliber of a team. We knew we were the kind of team that was top five in the country. We felt like we should have been in the national championship last year, even with the one loss to Georgia. Alabama lost to A&M and we had beat (A&M). It was kind of a bitter sweet season last year because we felt like we should have been in the national championship."
Check back Friday for Part II, as McCray discusses playing alongside Dante Fowler Jr., the experience of going undrafted, why Denver fit him best and more.