McCraney Stretches For Starting Duty

He's obviously bigger, presumably stronger. Yet the key change to Cortez McCraney's physique isn't shown on scale or stopwatch. A summer in Mississippi State's conditioning program has the defensive lineman loosened-up and loving it. "I think I'm the best shape I've ever been in," McCraney boasts. "I make all my times and I'm more flexible."

This despite carrying more of the muscle he'll need for duty in the middle of State's 4-3 base scheme. The junior is tipping summer scales at 275 to 280 pounds—"Depending on what day it is"—as he prepares for pre-season. Still it's not the muscle, it's the mobility that has McCraney excited about his potential for 2007. "That was one thing I wanted to work on in the off-season and Coach (Ben) Pollard helped me get more flexible, I think I'm quicker and faster."

"I was so stiff at first, I couldn't help it. Coach said he didn't understand how I was so stiff but you have a good vertical (jump) and can run so fast! I guess I was so tight in my hips and I didn't stretch that well." Now? While not exactly a prospect for any ballet companies just yet, McCraney's muscles have a greater range of motion that should allow him to put his innate ability to dance through protection and get at passers."

"Pass rush is kind of my strength," he smiles. "And since they moved me inside it's been pretty easy to pass-rush." Which relates to another sort of change in McCraney's career that shows on the depth chart. He came to Mississippi State after playing a year at defensive end for the University of Memphis. True, in a 3-4 system the ends are reasonably comparable to even-front tackles, so it is not a radical change.

At the same time McCraney spent his redshirt year planning on lining up at an end and attacking opposing quarterbacks. It was a surprise in March when he was told of a change in plan and position. "At first I was like aaah, I'd like to stay at the end. But Coach said I could help the team and I don't mind. Plus it gives me the chance to play, I'm starting right now!"

Indeed, he is the top left tackle going into August ahead of husky Kyle Love and lanky Quinton Wesley, himself a former end moved inside. Some thought the State staff was sending some of the tackles a message by jumping an end to the front of the depth chart; yet McCraney was able to hold his own in a new role and come out of camp first-team.

"But I've got to keep it up because I've got guys behind me who want to play as much as I do," he says. To that, shall we say, end McCraney is doing more than stretching and lifting in the remaining summer days before camp. He's honing the condition to be able to stay on the field a few more plays even as Mississippi State shuttles in down-linemen this fall. As of today transfer Jessie Bowman is starting at the other (nose) tackle with Love and Wesley in backup, end (another one) Charles Burns practicing both positions, and a trio of new tackles now on campus learning what they can of the system before two-a-days.

"We're going to be rotating, so we should be well-rested," McCraney says. "I can play the run but I on pass I'm the best on the interior, so I don't know what they're going to do. I have an advantage so I'll probably end up playing the most plays. I'm trying to get my stamina up now so I can play more."

He's also learning the ins-and-outs of his new job in the unsupervised sessions held after most weight-and-condition days. It's not as game-like as what the throwers, catchers, and runners can practice on their own, but the defensive linemen do what they can. "We do one-on-ones with the offensive line in pass-rush, other than that we're by ourselves or with the linebackers. And we do drills, go over our blitzes and things. So there are things we can do in the summer, it's like walk-throughs on the defense, making our steps and making sure we know our assignments."

McCraney is one of Pollard's prize students, having put on the right sort of weight at State. A lot of it, too. "When I go home people just say you've got big! Because in high school I was like 220 and at Memphis 255-260." He peaked at 284 in early summer but has trimmed it back just a bit for August. And now his maximum squat is nearing 500 pounds, showing one can add agility while getting stronger.

"This weight is pretty good for me. Coach Pollard has done a great job this off-season. I'm a lot stronger, I've come a long way." Literally and figuratively alike, since while going from end to tackle is just one step across it can be a huge step-up in responsibility. Maybe someday he could go back to end, a big one that is, but for now McCraney looks forward to applying his improved agility in the middle of the muscle-action.

And he simply can't wait to get back on the field in a real football game. "I'm anxious. I redshirted a year at Memphis and last year I had to sit out." It matters not a bit that his first foe will be a conference and national contender, either. If anything that motivates McCraney all the more this summer, along with teammates as he unreservedly predicts these Bulldogs will be going to a bowl.

"And I'm anxious to help any way I can." Specifically as a starting tackle, if McCraney successfully holds his place in what looks to be a competitive pre-season. It won't be automatic or easy, he agrees, but…

"That's the great thing about it, competition is going to make all of us work harder. And may the best man win."

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