GREEN BAY – Justin McCray need only gaze across the Packers’ main locker room to see how far he’s come over the last 12 months.
The second-year offensive lineman began 2017 working as a bellman at an Orlando hotel with his twin brother, Jordan, before the two talked coaches at their alma mater, Central Florida, into allowing them to participate in the school’s pro day.
Justin caught the eye of Packers scouts during the workout and signed a one-year contract with a single guarantee – the chance to compete for a roster spot with a slew of other longshots out of the auxiliary wing of Green Bay’s locker room.
McCray not only beat the odds to earn a place on the Packers’ 53-man roster coming out of training camp, but also gained the trust of his coaches and teammates with eight productive starts when injuries mounted on the offensive line.
He’s still not patting himself on the back or reading anything into taking starter reps at right guard during the first public practice of organized team activities this past Tuesday. In McCray’s mind, he’s the same street free agent he was last year when he was grinding to keep his NFL dream alive.
“Last year is last year,” McCray said. “I’m not going to live in the past. This is a whole new year. I’m looking to do a lot more good things and less bad things this year. I try not to think about last year too much.”
Head Coach Mike McCarthy and run-game coordinator/offensive line coach James Campen have praised McCray’s lunch-pail mindset, especially in relation to his offseason training.
McCray, working out in Green Bay, Orlando and back in his hometown of Miami, did his typical weight-training routine, but also placed a heavier emphasis on his conditioning the last three months.
The changes were obvious when McCray returned for the start of the Packers’ offseason program on April 16.
“The kid just keeps impressing you,” Campen said. “The guy came back, he’s lived here and changed his diet. He’s been totally engaged with what Coach (Mark) Lovat and the strength staff have done in that room.
“I’ll never give a player’s numbers or weights or body fats and those things … but the things he has done and displayed this offseason speaks volumes to where he wants to go. I think you just saw he tip of what Justin will be.”
While the mentality hasn’t changed, there have been some noticeable differences for McCray this spring. Unlike last summer when he repped practically every position on the line, the 6-foot-3, 317-pound offensive lineman has concentrated on the right guard position.
It’s a natural home base for McCray, who started three seasons at right guard for UCF. Yet, he only took a single snap at the position last season due to a litany of injuries at tackle and Jahri Evans’ steady presence at right guard.
The return of Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy from knee injuries this offseason has freed the Packers to take a closer look at McCray among other interior linemen at right guard.
The Packers drafted Washington State’s Cole Madison in the fifth round last month, but otherwise they’re leaning on McCray and a host of returning reserves to step up to the plate.
“It’s a competition. There’s a lot of good guys in here, a lot of guys who can play guard,” McCray said. “Right now they’re giving me the opportunity to compete for a job. I’m thankful for it. I’m going to keep working hard and win the job.”
McCray is the first to admit the 595 snaps he took last season provided a huge jolt of confidence for a former undrafted offensive linemen who was out of the NFL for two full seasons after being released by the Tennessee Titans in August 2015.
Today, looking toward the Packers’ auxiliary locker room remains a massive source of motivation for McCray. He’s come a long way over the last year, but he also understands what must be done to stay on his ascent.
“I was definitely in the hole last year,” said McCray, referencing where he started last summer in the auxiliary locker room. “The scenery is a lot better this year.”