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49ers Safety LJ McCray Is Standing Out on Special Teams

L.J. McCray still remembers the advice he received from Quinton Patton a year ago when he was fighting to make the San Francisco 49ers roster as an undrafted rookie.

"Bust your behind on special teams, bro, because that's going to be the only thing that keeps you here," Patton told him.

The 49ers safety fully embraced the importance of special teams and knew his impact in the third, and often unheralded phase of the game was the primary factor in his employment last season. 

"Oh definitely," McCray said. "Even though I feel in my heart that I'm a good safety, that wasn't the reason they brought me here. Special teams was my way in the door, and I knew that going into it. So I busted my behind on special teams just so I'd have the opportunity to learn from some of the great safeties they have here already and perfect my game."

Check out the best images from Game 1 of the preseason as the San Francisco 49ers face the Houston Texans.

McCray played in 14 games in 2014 and recorded seven tackles on special teams. In the 49ers first preseason game against the Houston Texans, McCray led the 49ers with two stops on special teams.

One of the two came on Bradley Pinion's first punt of the game. San Francisco's punter sent the ball 49 yards downfield and McCray, one of the two gunners on the field, was there immediately to tackle the returner after a mere two-yard return.

"I like everything about (special teams)," said the safety. "I just like to be physical and I like to use my speed. Special teams is a great chance to show everything I have: my strength, my speed and my power. It's an opportunity to show it all. I love special teams.

"The thing you learn when you get to the NFL is that no position is more important than another. People take pride in everything they do on the field so special teams is definitely something I take pride in."

Thomas McGaughey, Jr. wasn't with San Francisco in 2014, but the team's special teams coordinator has already taken notice of McCray's impact in that phase of the game. In his initial training camp press conference, McGaughey tabbed McCray as one of the players he expected to be a major contributor in all aspects of special teams.

On Thursday, McGaughey had more positive things to say about the second-year safety.

"L.J. plays with great passion," the coordinator said. "He's very, very, very powerful. He's explosive. He plays with great leverage and he loves playing on teams. ... He's a dang good young football player."

As one of two undrafted rookies to make the squad in 2014, along with offensive lineman Dillon Farrell, McCray knew there was far more pressure on him to impress the coaching staff than the players who were selected in the draft.

"I would say the pressure on drafted guys is being able to show up to the hype," McCray said. "For the undrafted guys, no one is even counting you in or knows your name or is thinking about you, so you have to give them a reason to. That's where the pressure comes in."

McCray's prowess on special teams hasn't taken away from his continued development as a safety.

Earlier in the week, veteran strong safety and 2014 team MVP Antoine Bethea called McCray a, "big safety that can run." McCray said he's taking full advantage of playing behind secondary standouts Bethea and free safety Eric Reid.

"It's amazing," McCray said of his peers. "As far as 'E. Reid,' he's a young guy as well, but he's been doing great things in his career. As far as Antoine Bethea, I looked up to him before I ever knew I'd come to the 49ers. It's definitely an honor to be able to play behind him and learn some of the stuff he does.

"You kind of get that mindset and try to lock into his mindset to see why he does certain things and why he's so great."

As a safety, McCray recorded five more tackles against the Texans, including a crushing hit against running back Kenny Hilliard. Physicality is something McCray certainly doesn't lack.

"It's kind of what I was known for in college, bringing that boom," the safety said. "It's just another part of the game: If you see a chance for a big hit, you take it. Sometimes you have to take the smart tackle, sometimes you have to make the big hit."

Speaking of college, McCray became just the 12th Catawba College alumni to play in the NFL. What's more is that Catawba is the alma mater of 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula, who also spent time at the school as a football coach.

McCray said the collegiate connection is a fun coincidence, but not something that lured him to San Francisco.

"It's really crazy," he said. "A lot of people thought that was the reason I came here, but that had nothing to do with it. It just worked out that way. It's definitely ironic, but it's been great. We both have that hard background and that coming from the bottom, worked really hard to get where we're at."

The 49ers safety will likely see plenty of reps both on special teams and on defense throughout the team's final three preseason contests.

McCray said he already feels more comfortable in the NFL from Year 1 to Year 2, and by the time Week 1 rolls around, he hopes to be a prominent member of the 53-man roster.

"Last year, I felt like I was ready physically, but I wasn't ready mentally," McCray said. "This year, I kind of know what to expect so my mind is stronger and I know what's going to come ahead of time."

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