College Football: Catawba's McCray breaks rib
By Mike London
The Catawba roundup ...
SALISBURY- It was just a simple kick-return drill in practice that was supposed to be conducted at a jog, but one of L.J. McCray's teammates didn't get the memo.
He ran into McCray at full speed.
"I got hit in the side and my shoulder got driven in and it popped out," McCray explained at Tuesday's Catawba press conference at Ryan's. "At first, they thought the injury was to my shoulder, but when I had X-rays, they found out I'd broken my first rib."
It was a traumatic wound, rare for football, a collision sport in which damage is usually concentrated on knees.
"It was only the second injury like it that anyone had ever seen from football," McCray said. "Our head athletic trainer (Bob Casmus) actually did presentations on it. It was an injury like you usually see in auto accidents."
McCray was a second-team All-America and first-team All-SAC player as a Catawba sophomore in 2010, a season in which he performed amazing feats such as returning kickoffs 99 and 94 yards in the same game.
He had nine tackles in Catawba's 2011 opener and was ready to repeat as an All-American, but that awful rib injury occurred a few days later. And when Catawba lost McCray, arguably its best player, for the final 10 games, it was a crushing blow that led directly to a dismal 3-8 record.
"He's that guy that makes things happen for Catawba," Carson-Newman coach Ken Sparks said.
The silver lining in all the misfortune is that McCray is not only healthy now, he's been granted a medical redshirt for his lost season and will still be eligible to lead the Indians in 2013. That's huge because McCray, a product of Charlotte's Harding High, has NFL athletic ability.
"He'll have a chance when his day comes for the pro scouts," Catawba coach Chip Hester said. "His vertical jump is 42 inches. He'll run great times. He's one of the best athletes that we've ever had here. We play him at safety, but he could play corner or linebacker, and he's strong enough to play defensive end. On offense, he could start at wide receiver or he could be a great running back."
Catawba's 42-7 loss to Carson-Newman on Saturday was a disaster any way you look at it, but McCray still stood out with eight tackles and 191 yards in kickoff returns. Twice, he returned kickoffs past midfield to hand the offense field position.
"They weren't throwing the ball, so the chance I had to impact the game was kickoff returns," McCray said. "I tried to make a difference every time I touched the ball."
Catawba's other safeties also did OK. Chad Endres made a great play with a forced fumble, and youngster Javon (J.D.) Powell, a redshirt freshman who has emerged to start next to McCray, had two tackles and generally did what he was supposed to do.
"We didn't have many bright spots," Hester said. "Powell was one of the few who graded out."
Powell traveled a long way from a 1A school to get to Catawba.
He played for Pender County, which is a little north of Wilmington. Powell was a triple-option running back and a free safety for Tom Eanes, the former East Rowan coach, and was recruited by former East coach and current Catawba offensive line coach Brian Hinson.
Powell had some tremendous games in high school, including a six-TD outing against Union when he was a junior.
He ran back the opening kickoff 86 yards, rushed for three TDs and caught two TD passes. He had a four-TD game in the playoffs against Ayden-Grifton.Pender was good and reached the 1AA title game Powell's senior year. Pender fell to Albemarle's Bulldogs 21-7 at Kenan Stadium, although Powell intercepted a pass and was voted Pender's defensive MVP.
Powell also played in the 1A basketball state championship game in March, 2011, the memorable one in which North Rowan rallied from a huge halftime deficit to beat Pender at Reynolds Coliseum.
Powell redshirted last fall at Catawba and emerged as a likely contributor during spring drills.
"His strong spring got him into the mix, and then Tyrone Johnson (neck) got hurt," Hester said. "There's no substitute for game experience, but Powell is coming on. He's athletic, he's physical and he has coverage skills."
Powell says he's learning every day.
"Offense is all in the past for me now, and I'm just trying to get better as a safety," Powell said. "I'm the young one in the secondary, and I've got some great leaders to look up to."
McCray predicts Powell will develop into a great player in his own right, and Catawba (3-3, 1-2) will need big plays from its safeties, as well as corners Jumal Rolle and Scottie Floyd, if it hopes to upset Mars Hill (4-2, 3-0) on the road on Saturday.
"We're not gonna win any shootouts right now," Hester said. "Our defense has got to lead us."
McCray hyper-extended his left thumb in practice on Monday, but he'll be in the lineup.
"If winning this game comes down to the DB crew making a play, we'll make it," McCray vowed. "If it's on us, we'll do it."