"Those are big guys and need their rest!" McCraney grins. "They're like 315, 320, I'm just 280. I can go a little longer than those guys. And I don't really want to come out too much!"
Now 280 is still a hefty fellow, so clearly McCraney is operating at a high conditioning level this last college year. The real story though is that this former defensive end isn't merely thriving as a tackle; McCraney is playing more often as the nose tackle, the man right in the middle of the line-action. And loving it.
"Anywhere they put me. I just enjoy playing football, period. I don't care if they put me at linebacker, I just want to try to make a play to try to help the team win."
McCraney's emergence as a capable nose-man has made State's shift from a 4-3-4 alignment to, often as not, a 3-3-5 set more practical. It's obviously allowed coordinator Charlie Harbison to get another of his outstanding safeties on the field more often. Of course everything in an alignment brings trade-offs, and while these safeties make for excellent extra linebackers it also means giving up some size on the line.
Thus the important part McCraney has been providing. "He's been playing well pretty much all the year, but the last three weeks he's been big-time," Coach Sylvester Croom said. Never more so than against Vanderbilt when with McCraney and two, and sometimes three, line-mates taking care of the rush assignments the linebackers and safeties could hold their ground and give ‘Dores passers nowhere to go or throw. "Several times Cortez got pressure in the three-man rush when he was double-teamed," Croom said, adding that McCraney has been the lineman most responsible for picking up the general level of play up-front.
Which to the coach is another victory of sorts. "He and I have had our differences since he's been here, but I have nothing but praise for the way he's performed this fall."
RETURN TRIP: McCraney has one advantage over all his teammates this weekend. He is the only Bulldog who has ever played a game in Neyland Stadium. It was during his freshman season as a defensive tackle, in a 3-4 set, playing for Memphis. He still remembers that trip from one end of the state of Tennessee to the other, and the game itself.
"It was crazy, like 102,000 people," McCraney recalled. "A lot of orange, and I think they shut the whole town down! It's amazing, and I'm looking forward to it." He just hopes for a better outcome this time than the last, though the Tigers did come to town to play. "We started off winning, DeAngelo Williams didn't play that game, and it really wasn't as loud as I thought. But they came back and I saw how loud it can get! It was a great atmosphere."
There's one way to make it even better from McCraney's perspective, though, in the last of his three shots against the home-state squad. "They beat us here last year and beat me at Memphis. So I hope to get my win my senior year."
THE LOVE BOAT: Another Dog D-lineman remembers last year well, too. DT Kyle Love got to see a lot of Vol back Arian Foster on Scott Field, following more big blockers than State was able to stop in a 33-21 loss.
"I had a lot of respect for them because that's the only o-line last year that really came off the ball and hit us hard," said Love. "This year we have to hit ‘em hard back." It won't be easy as the '08 Tennessee front bends the scales at over 305 pounds on average. And while Foster is ‘just' 215 pounds he packs plenty punch, too. "Our approach is just get to him; hit him hard, get him on the ground, stay in our gaps and make him run outside."
For his part Love has settled into the '08 system State is using up-front. The lineman rotation does cost him snaps, and he's only started one of the six games, but Love doesn't object. First, he is still limited in how much action the surgically-trimmed big toes can handle over the course of a game or for that matter a practice week. The defensive coaches don't dare risk over-working this big guy. "We're having to nurse him along," Croom said.
But secondly, rotation does get Love on the field for the sorts of situations he is unexpectedly thriving in this fall. That is, in pass defense. "Coach Turner noticed in practice I get a good bit of push, so he figured he could use me more in third down and in long situations to get some pressure on. I'm known as a run-stopper but he's seen that I've been working hard on pass-rushing."
It's paid off for State, not so much in sacks but in hurried incompletions that are almost as good. And every instant earlier the passer has to get rid of the ball, the easier it is on the secondary to cover and perhaps even come up with game-changing interceptions as in the Vanderbilt game. The re-emergence of DE Jimmie Holmes is helping put the pressure on, too. Croom hopes freshman Joshua Jackson is at a point now where he can help with the true-tackle rotation, spelling Love, Jessie Bowman, and LaMarcus Williams as needed. And after two weeks of limited duty DE Sean Ferguson is working his way back up the depth chart.
Which would only help State's front get more ‘push' here in the second half of the season. "We're coming together, gelling as a group," Love said. "We're filling our gaps but we're trying to focus on getting more pressure on the quarterback. It's going to be very important this week going against a big o-line, if the quarterback gets time to throw the ball he's going to make some plays. I've watched film and a lot of teams have given him time to make plays, so we're going to have to get in his face and get some hurries, and some picks."
ON THE RUN, AND READ: He made his first college, and SEC, start in Tiger Stadium. So QB Tyson Lee has already had his baptism of road-game fire in the toughest possible league venue. Neyland Stadium isn't quite as intense, though Lee isn't downplaying the venue this week either. "My brother went to football camp there last summer, so I was able to go with him. I walked in and...it's nice! I was like, wow!"
"If you ever get to play there it's a blessing and opportunity. But most of all we're trying to focus on what we can do, if it's a hostile environment or nobody there at all."
And it's not the throngs watching from seats that Lee will be watching out for anyway. State's quarterbacks are taking on the SEC's most aggressive secondary and a Tennessee defense that has picked off 11 passes already. It's an obvious matchup since Lee, in two starts and five games, has not had any of his 93 throws intercepted.
"They've got a lot of playmakers, and they're real disciplined," Lee said of the Vol defense. "We watched that, they're where they are supposed to be at the right time." Which means Lee, or cohort Wesley Carroll, will need extra care in picking their target and delivering the ball if there are any wrong UT-times. If.
Coach Sylvester Croom joked, sort of, that he'd clipped some scenes from scouting tapes to avoid scaring his throwers and catchers. Especially safety Eric Berry. "He's vicious," Croom said. "If the ball is not thrown accurately they're going to get it, they've got athletes everywhere but (the defensive backs) are special"
"Our protection has to be excellent, the our receivers have got to get open and make plays. One of Tyson's strengths is he's a very accurate quarterback. His decision making is going to have to be very strong, if there's any gray areas he's going to have to go on to the next option or pull it down."
Pulling it down and running has been a strong point for Lee, who has run—intentionally or not—19 times the last three games for 62 net yards. He is still prone to sackings but also has moved the chains to keep touchdown drives going by scrambling. Croom likes this aspect Lee brings to the gameplan, even non-planned. But over the long run the junior needs to polish more technical aspects. Such as the ‘progressions' in passing plays where against Vanderbilt video review showed Lee a couple of big-pass-play openings that were missed because he either skipped a step in the reading process or didn't get to the last read. Croom isn't criticizing, just reminding all that Lee is still a work in progress himself.
"He's a junior college transfer who hasn't been with us a whole year. It takes time to learn, that's why we have put very little new in, maybe one or two things in spring. He knows it in his head. But when you're getting hit in the mouth and running around back there it's a little difficult to execute. Some things only time will take care of. And nobody works harder than him. There's no smarter individual than Tyson Lee, he just has to be able to execute under fire." And besides, Lee has done exactly what has been asked so far by not turning the ball over two games in a row.
Still for State to succeed at Tennessee the quarterback will have to make plays with feet, arm, and mind. One worrisome trend the last three games has been the steady drop in yards-per-catch by Bulldog receivers. The completion rate is good and passes aren't being picked, but yards on or after receptions is down into single digits. Lee knows why.
"The defenses are just manning-up more and bringing a lot more pressure. When they do that it's a lot quicker balls that are thrown, rather than your deeper balls. But hopefully we can increase on that and get better on the passing game."