Lerentee McCray is ready for the limelight

Lerentee McCray has been through and seen a lot during his long Florida career.

The fifth-year senior linebacker/defensive end has seen the highs of winning a national championship and the lows of the school’s first losing record in conference play since the 1980s.

As he prepares to suit up for his final season in Gainesville, McCray wants to be a major component in what he hopes is a revival for the program in 2012.

“Whatever it takes to win, I’m ready to do it,” McCray said.

He’ll certainly get his chance, as he fills in for the injured and ever-popular Ronald Powell at the Buck position. Powell, who was the nation’s top recruit two years ago, had his best spring as a Gator this year before suffering an ACL injury during the spring game that should keep him out for most of the fall. While McCray missed all of spring recovering from shoulder surgery, Florida’s coaches didn’t hesitate to name him as Powell’s replacement.

And why would they? McCray is basically a bona fide hybrid. He began his career as an outside linebacker, but has since moved back and forth between linebacker and defensive end. He even got some action at Buck last year when Powell went down with an injury against Auburn.

He doesn’t have the name or hype Powell does, but McCray might have a little more fire and hunger, considering the up-and-down career he’s had in his four-plus years at Florida.

The former U.S. Army All-American participant and ESPN 150 member made the 50-plus-mile journey from Dunnellon, Fla., to Gainesville with lofty expectations. Along with just about everyone in his hometown, McCray expected to immediately compete for a starting spot and certainly expected a healthy amount of playing time as a freshman. But things didn’t exactly work out, as the 202-pound frosh played in just eight games, mostly on special teams, during the Gators’ national championship run. He played in just three games in 2009, receiving a medical redshirt.

Even with frustration mounting, McCray took time to learn from veteran playmakers such as Brandon Spikes, Ryan Stamper and Jermaine Cunningham. Sitting and watching motivated him and created a fierier attitude when it came to working out and practice.

But to make the kind of impact he wanted, McCray had to get bigger, so he was placed in Florida’s famed “Breakfast Club” where he turned into a real eater, inhaling as much steak, lobster and shrimp as he could during team feeding hours.

“I wasn’t a big eater before I got here, but they made me eat,” said McCray, who is at a comfortable 253 pounds that he hopes to maintain this fall.

Now that McCray has the will and the size, he’s looking to make a statement. He’s enjoyed a national championship and has seen Florida defenses rack up accolades, but he feels empty knowing he hasn’t been a tremendous help to his team yet.

“It’s been a high and low experience,” McCray said. “That’s life.”

That could change this fall, as McCray, who was named to the Butkus Award watch list, sees his role increase. He’s only appeared in 30 career games with just five starts, but had his best season yet in 2011, recording 24 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, giving coach Will Muschamp the impression that McCray could shine in 2012.

“I’m expecting a big year out of him,” Muschamp said. “I really am.”

Senior linebacker Jon Bostic feels the same way, but he’s always expected McCray to be a star. The first sign was during his freshman year, when Bostic recalls watching a scrawny McCray consistently put offensive linemen on their backs in practice.

“Regardless of what weight he was, he wasn’t going to back down from anybody,” Bostic said. “He’s one of those hard-nosed guys that’s going to run right down the middle at people.

“He makes somebody feel the pain before he does.”

McCray hopes to inflict even more pain this fall. And he isn’t concerned about any added pressure that will come with replacing Powell, who led Florida in sacks last year. He embraces the test and plans to finally make a name for himself.

“I’m a person who likes to take on challenges,” he said. “I came from the bottom. I’d like to get to the top. That’s what I’m looking to achieve, so I really don’t feel any pressure because I’m already the underdog.”