McRae Regains Feel For Ball And Game

A friendly notice: don't bring a football anywhere near Brandon McRae. Not unless your arm is loose and time is free. Because the Bulldog receiver will likely insist you throw it his way. Then again, and again, and again, and… "Sometimes when I'm at home and somebody is over there I'll say you want to go outside and throw the ball," McRae says. "I just want to get used to feeling the ball."

And understandable attitude given what McRae has endured the past four months since that terrible Egg Bowl moment, and considering what he hopes to achieve in his final Mississippi State fall. And be clear: McRae is much more focused on the future than anything past. Or for that matter present. Sure, he may joke about the detours and delays.

"That's the story of my life: just waiting for the opportunity!" McRae grins. "But it's going to work out for the best." It's that best that McRae is working towards this spring session, both in the remaining rehabilitation and his allowed practicing. That latter is still somewhat limited for his protection; after all, the last time the wideout was seen on-field in a real game he was lying on the turf with a right legbone snapped in twain. Yes, he can still feel a reminder.

"At times. Like, if I was running too much it starts to ache and stuff. But other than that it feels good when I'm first starting off." Nor is McRae likely to complain about such twinges. "Because that whole three months of just doing nothing was a pain in the heart. And a pain in the butt."

Know what the real pain has been? Having to watch his teammates practice and scrimmage while at a safe distance. "It's been a real struggle," McRae admits. That's why at time he will make himself, well, a pain of another sort while partners hit full-contact. Especially to the defensive Dogs. "At times I get that because I'll be talking trash to them, they'll be like go over there and ride the bike because that's all you can do! I want to go against them so bad so to make them pay for what they say!"

All in good time. Because when #6 does get to take his turns running route and catching balls in individual drills, he hardly seems to have lost a step. Credit this to a demanding rehab staff, both the trainers and strength coaches, that had him piling up the virtual miles on the exer-bike and in the running pool. Even, as camp approached, on the field itself. If the healed bone still aches at times, well, that too shall pass.

"They told me it was going to be painful a little bit when starting and stopping, but eventually my body was going to get used to the pain and it was going to go away. But when I get out there and get going and I'm running routes I don't pay it any mind. It just feels good being out there." McRae looks good too, at a toned 205 pounds. And he obviously enjoys what practicing he is permitted. "It's fun just doing something you love," he says.

"It's hard work. But I use it as motivation to get better. I should be healthy in the month of May, and I plan on going 210 percent. Going all-out."

What could be appreciated only after his injury in Oxford is that McRae might have gone down eventually anyway. He was gimpy the week leading up to the Egg Bowl with what turned out to be a hairline crack in the leg. But it took a hard move in the second quarter for the crack to become a bad break.

"That one cut I made I guess it couldn't hold any more, it gave up. It was a little drive-route across the field, I read it was a zone so I tried plant, stop, and look for the ball. Once I planted it felt like somebody had gone down at my leg trying to take my leg out, I looked around and nobody had touched me. I went dang…" Or that's what he says; teammates on the field heard more agonizing sounds, especially when the leg was pulled back to proper position. Not long afterwards he was en route to Columbus for rushed surgery. "We had a long drive back, you could feel every turn."

The good news from Dr. Chad Altmeyer was that the break was clean and would heal. And his rehab schedule meant McRae was on campus when Dan Mullen was introduced as the new Mississippi State coach. McRae even made the public introduction on crutches, drawing his own share of cheers in the process. "I couldn't miss it, I wanted to meet our new coach and see what he was like. He said he was bringing the spread down here, so I was like a little kid in a candy store! My eyes lit-up and I said I've got to get back healthy because I want to play in this!"

Now as Mullen's first camp goes into the final week McRae is all the more convinced State has the right gameplan. And if the wideout is restricted from full-contact a bit longer it hasn't kept him from lots of study and observation and any sort of preparation possible.

"Oh, I already know the plays now," he says. "When they told me to learn one position I just go ahead and learn them all. It's not that hard compared to the west coast. And once I see a play I've just got it in my head so it's pretty easy. I like ‘X' which is the wideout on the ball. He mainly gets the one-on-one coverages and stuff so that's what I want. But I like the slot, too, going against the safeties and linebackers. Anything just to help my team out, shoot, I wouldn't mind if they lined me up at quarterback!"

That won't be necessary of course. But Bulldog quarterbacks are going to be spending a lot of time with McRae in the coming months. Before his junior season he set a goal of catching at least 100 passes each day; now he says it wasn't enough. "Because we didn't make the big enough plays. And I think we could have worked extra-harder to make those plays. But we're going to make them this year." Which is why McRae is trying to get his hands on 200, 300, even 500 passes a day now. A lot of these are with the ball machine, admittedly, as no point in wearing out Tyson Lee or Chris Relf or anyone else here in April. His roommate, graduated receiver Jamayel Smith, has been the primary passing partner lately.

But once school is out Bulldog quarterbacks can expect frequent calls. "Because Tyson and myself, the timing is off with us now and with all these new routes and stuff we've got to get on our keys. So we're going to be going extra hard." McRae says Lee throws a nice "finesse, catchable" sort of pass. Whereas Relf fires rockets as short range and beautiful bombs downfield. "He just has raw talent and is going to be great. The shorter routes? It's good but you'd better be ready for them because it's coming!"

And if one wonders, yes. McRae is establishing a bond with another potential passer, albeit within restrictive NCAA policies. They might not be able to play catch but McRae says he and incoming freshman Tyler Russell already have "a little chemistry" going, based on the high school senior's visits to watch practice lately. There's no rule against off-field chats after all.

"We're already messing around with each other and he's real cool, I like him a lot. And he's my height, he came up to me last week talking about how he's 215 now. I'm like you need to get bigger than that!"

For his part McRae has really big things in mind. "My goal this year is 60 catches for 1,200 yards, I'd be happy with that. I'd be more than happy with that! But numbers really don't matter to me, I just want to win and bring something like a SEC Championship back to the school."

Tall talk indeed. But when a guy carried off a field with a limp leg is back at work this soon and this smoothly, anything seems possible. Even "eight to ten" wins as McRae projects. "I believe that. If we can keep Anthony Dixon healthy!" he laughs, as the senior halfback walks by and makes a typically teasing comment. "They'll have me out there, Leon Berry is coming along, Delmon Robinson, and all those stud freshmen coming in—Chad Bumphis, Rico Sanders, Chris Smith." Hmmm, good thing State has gone to an offense that requires multiple receiver sets, because the old system didn't dish the ball around enough to keep that roster content. Now?

"I believe everybody is going to be happy and satisfied, it's whatever is best for the team," says McRae. And what is best for the Bulldogs will make all the pain, past and present, worth it. "This is the year I've waited for. It's my senior year. I think this is going to be the best year yet."

At which McRae heads off for a team meeting...and to recruit a passer for another afternoon of pitch-and-catch.

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