STARKVILLE – He still works his fingers nervously when being interviewed, but that’s about the only remnant of the old, shy Brandon McRae.
These days, Mississippi State’s senior wide receiver speaks with a firmer voice, and with a confidence bordering on arrogance. But those who know McRae knows he’s far from arrogant.
He’s just eager – to improve on last season, when he led MSU with 51 catches for 518 yards and three touchdowns; to bounce back from a gruesome leg injury suffered in the Egg Bowl; to show he has a place in coach Dan Mullen’s spread option offense.
“I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself to be that go-to man, and for everybody to count on me,” McRae said.
Mullen said it’s too early to say anyone is a “go-to” guy, but he was glad to see McRae going full speed Monday during the first preseason practice.
“I was pretty pleased he was able to come out and go through a whole practice, and I think he felt pretty comfortable going through the whole practice, he didn’t pull himself out of anything,” Mullen said. “That’s a step in the right direction for him.”
When McRae’s right leg crumpled beneath him on the Vaught-Hemingway Stadium turf Nov. 28 – he broke his tibia and fibula, and bone was protruding from the skin – his career was in jeopardy.
Paul Mock, MSU’s head athletic trainer, likened the injury to the one former Alabama receiver Tyrone Prothro suffered in 2005, when he broke two bones in his left leg. It ended his career.
McRae has his sock to thank for possibly saving his career. Prothro’s bare leg got infected, but the long socks McRae was wearing – per then-coach Sylvester Croom’s uniform policy – prevented that. Plus, it occurred on artificial turf.
With this type injury, Mock said, “Infection is probably one of the top two things that can go wrong.”
Is he there yet?
Now the question is, Can McRae come all the way back from it?
On Sunday, he said he’s near 100 percent. He’s felt good running pass routes, and he’s given State’s defensive backs a warning. “I told them already, ‘Don’t take it lightly on me.’ I said I’m going hard, so they better come.”
He informed freshman DB Johnthan Banks that if he presses McRae, “he’s going into the ground.”
McRae says this all with a smile, optimism radiating from the Boston native who played high school ball in Richmond, Va., and transferred to MSU from Morehead State in 2006.
Mock is more cautious. He said returning to one’s former self after such an injury is not “an overly common thing.” The physical aspect is to a large degree out of McRae’s control.
He’s been doing what he can, though. He’s been running in the pool, and he and running back Robert Elliott, who’s returning from a torn ACL and LCL, have pushed each other during rehab.
New strength coach Matt Balis’ offseason program is helping, too, judging from the bulging biceps peeking out from under McRae’s sleeves.
“You’ll never see a guy who comes back from injury work as hard as he has,” senior quarterback Tyson Lee said. “I think because he works so hard, he’s able to have that confidence.”
What McRae can control, though, is his mental approach.
Lee was speaking with McRae recently about the injury and asked the 6-foot-4, 205-pounder, “Do you think it’s more mental or physical?” McRae said, “Physical, Tyson.”
That wasn’t the answer Lee was expecting.
“He said he felt some soreness from getting some screws out, but outside of that, mentally he said he’s ready to go,” Lee said.
Still, McRae hasn’t been hit since that November day in Oxford. He didn’t participate in contact drills in the spring, but the Bulldogs strap on pads Friday.
“It’s a step that he’s going to have to face when he gets out there and guys are flying and hitting and all that kind of stuff,” Mock said. “It may mean once he gets tackled, he may go, ‘Hey, I’m OK.’”
Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal