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Jim Tomsula Urged on 49ers Rookie James McCray

Posted Jun 30, 2014

The Catawba College product has caught the eye of San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

It’s hard to get practice reps as an undrafted rookie. It’s even harder to do enough in those moments to make the 53-man roster.

Enter  San Francisco 49ers rookie safety James McCray, the pride of Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C.

McCray, a 6-foot, 210-pound prospect, attended the alma mater of respected 49ers defensive line coach Jim Tomsula.

McCray and Tomsula first met in ’12 at Catawba’s senior night game. McCray still recalls the wisdom that Tomsula shared in that brief encounter.

“He kept telling me, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep working hard and keep shining and they’ll notice you,’” McCray said. “He gave me a lot of encouragement.”

The tip paid off.

McCray made 39 starts during his four-year career at Catawba. As a senior, he totaled 78 tackles and two sacks on his way to being named First-Team All-South Atlantic Conference.

With the 49ers, however, McCray is now competing with a large group of veterans and rookies coming from FCS power conferences.

The young safety has turned heads in the 49ers offseason program by making the most of his limited snaps.

“He’s done well for a small-school guy,” San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said earlier this month. “He’s got good ability. He’s got good speed and he’s tough. (He) shows some instincts. He’s got to learn a lot. And that can be a slow process at times for these guys. But, I do like what he’s shown and he’s got some potential.”

Potential – that is the key word.

The 49ers have established starters at the safety position with solid veteran Antoine Bethea being added to the lineup next to up-and-coming second-year pro Eric Reid.

“I take in whatever both of them say to me,” McCray said. “If I make a mistake, I ask questions just to see what play they would have made in that situation. So I get the best of both worlds.”

The advice paid off during the team’s offseason program. McCray recorded a notable interception during a veteran minicamp session, showing excellent concentration in the process as he corralled a deflected pass and ran up the field with the ball.

The small-school safety has proven he can adjust to the speed of his NFL teammates. Now, it’s a matter of showing he can grow in the mental side of the game.

“It’s a big difference coming from where I come from,” McCray said. “We didn’t have these coverages, but I adapt quick and I learn.

“It’s not so much that the people are faster here, it’s just the speed of everybody knowing what they’re doing. I have to get my mind right for that.”

Helping matters is the tight bond of San Francisco’s rookie class. A large contingent of defensive backs, including Jimmie Ward, Dontae Johnson, Kenneth Acker and Keith Reaser, has helped the first-year players adjust to the professional environment.

“We’re close,” McCray said. “We all came in with the same mindset. Instead of us trying to battle with each other, it’s turned into a friendly competition. 

“Each one of us is competing to make us all better.”

In addition to all the time spent at the team hotel and training facility, the rookies have branched out to explore the Bay Area as a group. Several of the players took part in a recent tradition of touring San Francisco.

McCray said he was blown away by the experience, which included visits to the city’s top tourist destinations.

“That was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life,” McCray said. “When we took the boat tour on Pier 39, I had never seen anything like that.”

McCray is hopeful he can do more sightseeing on the West Coast. But for now, the focus is on securing a coveted roster spot.

If that happens, McCray will have landed on his father’s favorite football team.

Even so, the fact that McCray is working with Tomsula is too unique to ignore.

“They were always in the back of my mind going through the draft process,” McCray said of the 49ers. “It’s crazy that I ended up here. I guess it was meant to be.”


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