This article is dedicated to the rumbling, stumbling, 18-wheeler of a man who is trucking his way into the hearts of a fanbase. He needs no further introduction, really. If you are any sort of Illini fan, god bless your heart, you already know who I’m talking about. Maybe the most electrifying true freshman since... Mike Epstein? I’m talking about Derrick Henry Jr., an athletic freak; someone who is simply too large to run that fast and cut that gracefully. A true freshman, overlooked and underrecruited because of his size, who is proving doubters wrong – one rush at a time.
Josh McCray has less than 100 carries under his belt, yet it is impossible to watch him run and not feel something. This dude had 150 (!!) yards after contact against Purdue. Maybe it’s secondhand shock from crushing hits he delivers seemingly every play. Or an appreciation for how he manages to push a pile of would-be tacklers three yards. Most likely, however, is what I’d like to call the Derrick Henry effect.
We’re so used to seeing 5’8”- 6’0”, 180-200 pound running backs that anything else is striking. Coaches have a prototypical size for their positions, and running backs seem especially so. You go over a certain size just a little and you’re out, deemed too big for the position. So, when you catch a Derrick Henry run, the default reaction is to just stare in awe. You’re watching a defensive end run a 4.40 and jump cut through holes like a prototypical RB, it just doesn’t look possible. At least, we’re told it shouldn’t be.
There’s no wonder why we feel something when Josh McCray lines up in the backfield. He’s an inch taller and 35 pounds heavier than any other RB on the roster. He’s heavier than Seth Coleman and every single linebacker on the roster. Take Jake Hansen, add five pounds, put him behind Brandon Peters and that’s Josh McCray. That body type running that way with that success just does not compute in our prototype-focused brains. We expect tight ends to look like Luke Ford, not Donny Navarro. Unfortunately, we also expect quarterbacks to look like Brandon Peters, not Isaiah Williams.
When a guy comes along and totally crushes that school of roster organization, especially in such a fun, successful and violent way that McCray has, it’s impossible to not be irrationally excited. Sure, that takes the form of declaring a true freshman with >100 carries Derrick Henry Jr., but McCray is genuinely listed at only seven pounds lighter than Henry. Simply mindboggling. During a time where nothing seems to be working, Josh McCray is out there putting defensive tackles six feet under. When you’ve been picked on for so long, you can’t help but relish finally being the bully.
McCray also represents a changing of the guard. He is a Bielema guy and looks like the first to be a true game-changer for Illinois. McCray is the first example of a Bielema player succeeding in a Bielema scheme. As the season slowly meanders towards another rebuild, we can only hope that the program will be turned around with more Josh McCrays. So far, at least one Bielema guy has been a home run.