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McCray poised for breakout season

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JACKSONVILLE – Demetrius McCray left the Jaguars' locker room headed for Miami.

This was mid-June, as the Jaguars' 2015 offseason program ended. McCray, a third-year cornerback who is mentioned often as one of the team's rising young players, wasn't going to South Florida to sit on South Beach and soak up the sun.

A seventh-round selection in the 2013 NFL Draft from Appalachian State University, McCray was headed to a place even warmer than the practice fields he had just left.

It also was a place to help him prepare for what could be his breakout NFL season.

"It's hotter down there; the air is even thicker," McCray said. "I want to be able to come back here next month (for training camp in late July) and have it feel cooler."

The difference, while likely negligible to the average person, helped explain McCray's mindset as he enters 2015 Jaguars training camp. Gone are the days of being the low-round draft choice with expectations hovering somewhere between "he has a chance for the practice squad" and "he can play a role on special teams."

McCray moved into the starting lineup last October against the Pittsburgh Steelers and played well enough to stay there the rest of the season.

"But I won't stay there if I just go down there and rest," he said. "I know I can't afford to think like I'm going to stay there. I have to continue to prepare."

Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley likes to tell his team they can't grow and get better in their comfort zone. No worries there for McCray, who watched the Jaguars write a big check this offseason to sign former Green Bay Packers cornerback Davon House as an unrestricted free agent.

"I've learned a lot from him already; he's made a lot of plays since he got here," McCray said. "I didn't take it personally. I knew I was going to have to work hard and get better."

House isn't the only one pushing McCray as he prepares for training camp. Cornerback Aaron Colvin was a revelation as a rookie last season. The 2014 fourth-round selection missed training camp with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and labored to return, but also absolutely shined in the six late-season games in which he was able to contribute. Originally thought to be the team's nickel cornerback, he suddenly looks like competition for McCray on the outside.

Third-year veteran Dwayne Gratz also isn't going away quietly. Gratz, a 2013 third-round selection, has 21 NFL starts at cornerback and even through battles with injuries and inconsistency, he has managed to stay the course and show the coaching staff he is still a player with plenty of upside.

"I've mentioned before that corner spot," Bradley said late in the offseason program. "It's good to see we've got size, we've got length and we've got great competition there. It's going to be a fun position to watch in training camp." 

The Jaguars need the secondary to take a big step in Bradley's third season. The defense produced 45 sacks last season, but that increased pressure didn't translate to more interceptions. Jacksonville finished with just six interceptions in 2015, a total that tied the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs for fewest in the NFL.

The Jags spent significant money in free agency on strong-side defensive end Jared Odrick and House to help increase that number – and, of course, also used the No. 3 overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft on former University of Florida pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr.

As for McCray, he is very much aware that he enters his third season seeking his first career interception.

Jaguars cornerback Demetrius McCray celebrates his birthday on May 11.

"I'm not worried about it," McCray said. "I'm motivated by it and I know that we have to get better at that."

McCray also said the secondary knows the organization has been patient with the group since 2013, a year in which as many as three starting spots were filled with rookies. He also said he knows that now is the time for this group to realize its potential.

"We know it," he said. "It motivates all of us – especially the guys who have been here since then."

When McCray headed south from Jacksonville in June, his game plan was to "actively rest" – i.e., to spend time family and friends but not miss the opportunity he has waiting for him when he returns. He also doesn't want to miss the opportunity to be at his best.

"That's what I'm all about down there," he said. "I'll get rested and ready at the same time."

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