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Watch now: 'Young Buck' Josh McCray shows promise as true freshman running back at Illinois

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Josh McCray, Illinois

True freshman running back Josh McCray has totaled 12 carries for 49 yards this season at Illinois.

CHAMPAIGN — Josh McCray is the youngest running back on Illinois' roster, but the 19-year-old certainly doesn't look like it.

In fact, McCray is actually the Illini's biggest tailback. The true freshman stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 240 pounds, a frame he credits to a steady diet of Panda Express in high school.

"Panda every day," McCray said Tuesday, grinning. "Double orange chicken, fried rice, with teriyaki chicken."

McCray shook his head, almost as if in disbelief, as he reflected on the increased diet and strenuous weight-lifting program he used to bulk up from being a 195-pound high school freshman.

He believes the added weight coupled with the coaching he received in his hometown of Enterprise, Alabama, helped him develop an affinity for physicality.

"Bama, it's physical football down there," McCray said. "That's really where I picked all that up from because in high school we was just straight downhill, running Wing T and now coming to (the spread offense). I did spread my ninth grade and 10th grade year and then 11th grade year we got a new coach, coach (Rick) Darlington from Apopka, Florida, and he had to get us tough. So he just had just running downhill and running behind my pads."

Under Darlington's guidance, McCray totaled 111 carries for 774 yards (7.0 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns, and recorded 28 catches for 440 yards and six scores as a senior at Enterprise High School.

Now, roughly one year later, he's shown promise on a much larger scale in the Big Ten. McCray, nicknamed "Young Buck" by his coaches, made his college debut against UTSA on Sept. 4. It was a milestone he didn't see coming, but one he took advantage of.

"When my number got called, it was overwhelming. I couldn't believe it," McCray said with a wide smile. "I just had to go out there and execute."

The freshman ripped off a nine-yard run on his first college carry and has appeared in Illinois' last two games. McCray had five carries for 16 yards against UTSA and followed that up with seven carries for 33 yards last week at Virginia.

First-year Illini coach Bret Bielema has played several running backs throughout the team's first three games, including McCray. He said he's been impressed with the freshman and thinks he's only scratched the surface of his potential.

"The coach that recommended him to me (Enterprise assistant coach Jed Kennedy) is the coach that recommended Melvin Gordon to me (at Wisconsin), so he knew the kind of (big) backs that we had liked," Bielema said. " ... I think when (McCray) pops in the game, you can just see (what) his energy level brings to the offense (and) to the offensive line. There was a play on Saturday when he kind of hopped over (a defender) and looked like he could go for a big one. ... I think we gotta let him learn the game a little better and let it come to him, but I'm excited with where he's at."

McCray, who had scholarship offers from a handful of Power Five programs, including Arkansas and South Carolina, said he chose Illinois because of the strong relationship he built with Bielema.

Since joining the program, he's also established tight bonds with his more experienced teammates in the running back room: redshirt freshman Reggie Love III, sophomores Chase Brown and Jakari Norwood, junior Chase Hayden and super senior Mike Epstein.

"They all help me up front and help in my pass (protection)," McCray said. "And then every day whenever we go through the bag cutting drills, they help me with my footwork because I'm such a bigger guy. So just learning from them, they help me a lot."

McCray said he didn't really expect to play in his first year on campus, but after getting a taste of the action, he's hungry for more. The freshman plans to continue building his body so that he can withstand the punishment that comes with being a tailback, while also dishing it out.

Brown believes he's already put a few defenders on notice.

"Guys don't want to get in front of that," Brown said, laughing.

McCray said he's proud of how much he's grown physically and mentally as a player since making the 13-hour drive with his family from Enterprise, Alabama, to Champaign. But from his perspective, his college career isn't just about him. The freshman's phone was flooded with congratulatory messages after his debut against UTSA, reminding him that there are a lot of people drawing inspiration from his journey.

"The whole Enterprise was going wild because that's where I'm from," McCray said of his debut. "They was all enjoying it. They couldn't believe it and I couldn't either.

"It means the world to me, just playing for the guys back home and letting them know like, 'We can really play Division I football.'"


Follow James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid

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