Despite the Illinois football team starting 1-4 this season, the Orange and Blue have a budding superstar on their hands.
This superstar was offered a scholarship by the Illini after the early signing period. Most of the programs recruiting him saw the talented player as a linebacker. He was only a three-star recruit coming out of high school. 247Sports had him ranked as the No. 1397 player in the class of 2021. Who am I talking about?
Illinois football running back, Josh McCray.
Out of all the commitments from the 2021 class, McCray would have been one of the least likely to have a breakout freshman campaign. Not only was he a sub-1300 recruit nationally, but McCray was also the No. 10 highest-rated recruit in the Illinois class of 2021.
In addition to the perceived average talent, McCray had a lot to deal with when it came to running back depth. Chase Brown was the incumbent running back for the Illini. Mike Epstein made the decision to return to the program. Reggie Love was one of the highest-rated recruits from the class of 2020. There was a ton of competition.
Chips started to fall into place for McCray, though. Injuries took a toll on Brown and Epstein, leaving Love, McCray, and Jakari Norwood to duke it out for carries in the backfield.
Slowly, McCray started to see snaps. He received five carries against UTSA and rushed for 16 yards. In the Virginia game, the freshman received seven carries and rushed for 33 yards. McCray then received eight carries and ran for 60 yards and a touchdown against Maryland.
This past Saturday against Purdue, McCray was elevated to the starting job with Brown on the mend. Did the young running back fold in the moment? No, the complete opposite happened.
McCray would get 24 carries and run wild for 156 yards. Every time he got the ball, he would average 6.5 yards per carry. The Alabama product was unstoppable against the Boilermakers. Not only was McCray a beast to bring down, but he also etched his name in the Illinois football record book.
The 156 yards by McCray cemented himself No. 5 on the True Freshman 100-yard Rushing Games list. That means he has the fifth-most rushing yards in a single game by an Illinois freshman.
On top of McCray breaking a freshman record, he also had one of the best performances by an Illinois running back in years. The last time an Illini running back ran for at least 156 yards was back on November 11, 2018. Reggie Corbin tallied 213 yards that day in a win over Minnesota.
I know it is a long season and it is just one game, but I think it is clear Illinois has a special player on their hands in McCray. The way he runs is something I haven’t seen in an Illinois uniform in quite some time. He doesn’t even have a year of college training under his belt. I think we have only scratched the surface of McCray’s potential.