GREEN BAY – It was only by chance that the Green Bay Packers found out Justin McCray was in the best physical shape of his life, so why not give him a chance?
A year ago, McCray had just finished his one and only season playing for the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League and was working at a hotel run by the team’s owner, hoping to get one more shot at the NFL.
He and his twin brother, Jordan, who was in the Packers’ training camp in 2014 and spent a short time on their practice squad later in the season, were training like mad men, looking to catch somebody’s eye.
They didn’t have an in, so they asked if they could get a re-do at Central Florida’s pro day, which they had attended three years earlier after their senior seasons. The football staff agreed to let them test in front of the scouts, although they were not allowed to do any football drills.
“We were in great shape obviously, just eating right and training all that time,” McCray said. “I went there and ran a lot better than I did coming out of college. I ran a 5.5 (seconds in the 40-yard dash) at my pro day and I ran 5.11 this time.”
It just so happened that Packers senior personnel executive Alonzo Highsmith was in attendance and liked what he saw. Highsmith went home and told general manager Ted Thompson about it. The following Sunday, McCray received a phone call from his agent while at church. He took the call and found out the Packers wanted to work him out.
McCray flew to town, worked out and was signed on the spot, despite the fact he had sat out the entire 2016 season.
“The last time I had put on pads was last August,” McCray said.
Luckily for him, he had time to get comfortable with the Packers’ system through the off-season program. So when he reported for training camp, he was prepared to let his 6-3, 317-pound body do the talking.
From the start, McCray, who had posted an impressive 32 reps on the bench press during his senior pro day, has played to the whistle. It has gotten him involved in some skirmishes, including one in which safety Kentrell Brice took a wild swing at him, but his teammates have come to respect his ability.
“He’s really strong, you can tell that,” guard Lane Taylor said. “He plays with a lot of power.”
Since joining the Packers, McCray has done a whole lot more than just put on the pads. He has held down the No. 2 job at right guard, the No. 3 job at center and a first-team position on the kickoff-return unit.
If you don’t think those are important positions, then consider that with JC Tretter gone to Cleveland in free agency, Don Barclay and Jason Spriggs, a pair of natural tackles, came into camp as the only backup guard prospects likely to make the team.
Now with Barclay (ankle) sidelined indefinitely, McCray’s strong performance in the first two weeks of camp and against the Philadelphia Eagles in the exhibition opener has vaulted him in position to make the team as a backup at three positions.
“I’m older but still young when it comes to game experience,” McCray, 25, said. “I definitely try to not have too much of an ego and learn from them (the veterans) while incorporating some of the things I’ve learned along the way.”
It helps that the Packers knew what they were getting with McCray. Back in ’14, they wanted to sign him and Jordan to rookie free-agent contracts.
But the two decided they needed to split up for the first time in their lives. Jordan chose to sign with the Packers and Justin signed with the Tennessee Titans.
Neither twin made his respective team, although both were signed to the practice squads. The Packers cut Jordan after a short time and didn't re-sign Justin when the Titans let him go in 2015.
“It was a good experience,” McCray said. “We still got to play against each other. My first NFL game was against Jordan when Tennessee played against Green Bay (in the 2014 exhibition season). It was definitely a cool thing. The family got to see both of us play.”
Playing in the Packers’ system is a lot different than playing Arena ball, but McCray said he learned to play in space and feels it has helped him use his hands better. The most stressful part came when the coaches asked him to play center, but he hasn’t had many bad snaps and seems to be stout in pass protection.
It’s fortunate for the Packers, too, because rookie guard Kofi Amichia hasn’t taken to playing center and free agent Lucas Patrick also is a guard learning center. McCray isn’t a lock to make the team, but he’s giving the Packers something to think about.
“The more you can do,” McCray said. “There’s a lot of competition because Lucas (Patrick) is a really good guard-center, Donnie can do it, Kofi (Amichia) can do it as well. And then guys that are already there starting.
“It’s really good competition. It’s good for us because we’re competing against each other. Competition breeds success.”
And McCray is competing better than anyone expected.