"Regardless of what I'm doing, I find a way to find the ball and I'm able to get there and get it done," he said. "You can have speed, you can teach plays, but you can't teach instinct. I really believe you can't teach it at all. Either you have it or not. I believe I have it."
McCleskey helped rebuild a struggling program at Cal with a breakout season in 2003 as a sophomore. He was named to the All Pac-10 first team, broke Cal's record for tackles by a defensive back with 102, posted 5.5 sacks, 12 tackles for a loss, and was voted Most Valuable Defensive Player. And he learned a valuable lesson about himself and his capabilities.
"Sky's the limit," he stated. "You can accomplish anything as long as you work towards it and stay healthy, and have the support of people around you.
"The sky's the limit, you can keep going on the field all day. I felt like that year I should have had 120 tackles, eight sacks. I felt that I should keep going and I'm still gonna keep going. It's just a stepping stone to what you can get in life, saying that the bar is this high, now go and get it."
He worked hard to achieve those results for one simple reason. He expected it of himself.
"I always think I have to go out there and do my best," he said. "If I feel someone else is having a great game, then I have to go out and have a great game as well -- better than theirs. I'm just always competing. But I'm not always competing against everybody else, I'm competing against myself.
"My mind plays tricks on me like if I have 5 tackles, then my mind and my heart say that's good, but you've got to go out there and get 8 or get 12. Like, I've got to keep going. And that's what I'm always doing. I'm always pushing myself to the level of greatness. I want to be great at everything I do. Perfection means a lot to me."
McCleskey also showed incredible focus and fortitude as he pushed himself through some tough injuries following that breakout season. He had partially torn his patella tendon, so he had offseason surgery that cost him his 2004 season. He worked hard and had the knee back in good shape, but then he tweaked it during practice in preparation for the 2005 season. Three days later, he injured his shoulder on the right side as well. But he missed just one game.
"You learn a lot about your character, your mentality about what you feel about the game. "I always knew that I loved the game, but that brought out passion in me for the game. I learned so much more about the game, other than just my position."
Despite pain and discomfort that made it nearly impossible to sleep on his right side, McCleskey continued to trot out onto the football field week after week.
"That's what I breathe for," he said.
Ironically, football provided the adrenalin that allowed him to forget about the pain. "It's always been my adrenalin. Just to be out there with my teammates, the enjoyment of being able to walk down the tunnel, to be there for the coin toss, to celebrate after a game. There's no better feeling in the world," he said.
McCleskey makes plays everywhere thanks to a nice combination of football smarts and field intelligence.
"I study a lot of film so I know a lot about the opponent and I know a lot about our general concept on defense," he explained. "Then, just me being me wanting to make plays, takes over too. It's like two lethal weapons going at each other. [laughs] You could be as athletic as you want but it wont show on the field if you don't know what's going on out there on the field."
McCleskey hopes that pro scouts have learned one other important thing about him over the past few months as they've evaluated all aspects of him as a player and a person.
"The only place I cause trouble is on the field," he said matter-of-factly. "I'm just a guy living life, a relaxed guy. But on the field I'm causing havoc. Offensive schemes will have to know where I am."
McCleskey is a firecracker on and off the field. Find out more about him, his respect for Troy Polamalu and other smaller safeties in the league and the teams that are showing interest in him in this exclusive Insiders Article.
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