GREEN BAY – One of the most improbable individual campaigns in recent Packers history was barely over and Justin McCray already was thinking about the encore.
An undrafted offensive lineman who’d been playing arena football a year earlier, McCray became a Cinderella story in 2017, making eight starts and playing practically every position to help fortify a banged-up Green Bay unit.
As good as it felt to go from a roster longshot to valued contributor, McCray has been around long enough to know one strong season doesn’t guarantee you another. Instant success got McCray’s foot in the door. Now, he needed to step through it.
Using the unexpected attention and praise to fuel his motivation, McCray isolated certain of areas of his game where he needed to improve. If he was going to take the next step, McCray knew he needed to refine his diet.
“Adam (Korzun), our nutritionist, put together a plan for me,” McCray said. “After the Detroit game last year, I told him what I wanted to do. We made a plan. I kept in contact with him. Just trying to stick to it.”
McCray wasn’t striving for a set number of pounds to add or subtract. He just wanted to improve his body composition and put better weight on his 6-foot-3 frame.
Gearing up for a run at the Packers’ starting right guard position, McCray reduced the amount of carbs he was ingesting and enhanced his vegetable intake – even if it meant having to squeeze his nose to finish off a spinach and kale smoothie.
The hardest part? Cutting back on dairy.
“I’m a big ice cream, dairy guy,” McCray said. “Strawberry milk, milkshakes. I have to stay away from those – I try to, but it’s a work in progress.”
His teammates and coaches have taken notice. Run-game coordinator/offensive line coach James Campen praised McCray during the offseason program for the proactive approach he took to his strength and conditioning.
Another factor working in McCray’s favor is getting a chance to settle in at one position, right guard, rather than lining up everywhere across the line when he was a street free agent trying to make the roster last summer.
Although his versatility proved invaluable last year when injuries mounted at right tackle, McCray has enjoyed getting to take snaps with the starting offense at his natural position.
With the pads going on for the first time Saturday, McCray continues to hold his own in team drills and against the likes of Muhammad Wilkerson and Dean Lowry in one-on-ones.
“In fairness to Justin, and I hope it stays that way, it’s nice to just see him be able to play one position,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “What he accomplished last year, just from a versatility standpoint, not only in the games but just in practicing and his preparation, was extremely impressive for a young player. He looks good, he looks like he’s taking that jump that you look for.”
All told, McCray played 595 offensive snaps at both the tackle and guard positions. Coincidentally, the position he primarily played last preseason – center – was the only one he didn’t play during the regular season with starter Corey Linsley taking every snap.
McCray’s trial by fire did have some perks. He earned the respect of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and developed chemistry with nearly everyone on the offensive line.
Defensive tackle Mike Daniels has lined up against some of the best at the guard position during his six years in Green Bay, including Lane Taylor, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. Like those before him, McCray doesn’t back down.
“He’s definitely improved and grown every day. He works incredibly hard,” Daniels said. “I have nothing but the most respect for Justin. I love competing against him. Tough player, low to the ground, super strong. He’s aggressive and he plays with the right attitude. He wants to finish you.”
The work doesn’t stop now. McCray is still cautious, making sure he’s doing everything he needs to do – from his diet to his practice habits – to put himself in the best situation possible.
Getting consistent reps at right guard doesn’t hurt, either.
“You get to see what you’re good at in one position rather than just going on the fly all around the line,” McCray said. “I definitely think it’ll help me out being able to stand at one.”