Nov. 28, 2012
By Tiffany Kirkland
If you ask sophomore linebacker Chris McCain the single most important reason he committed to Cal, he will respond simply and directly - "to play with my family."
That family, the small group of players from North Carolina including Keenan Allen, Zach Maynard and Gabe King, grew up together, and according to McCain, always wanted to play together. In 2010, they were presented with what he describes as the perfect opportunity when each of the best friends received an offer from Cal.
"When Zach said he wanted to come to Cal and play with Keenan, I was like, `I'm coming to play too!" McCain said.
As a four-star recruit and rated as the nation's No. 10 linebacker, McCain committed to Cal in 2010. Allen, Maynard and King did as well. Wide receiver Maurice Harris, another close friend and cousin of Allen and Maynard, followed the next year in 2011.
"I don't feel like I'm too far away from home," McCain said. "Having them around makes me feel very comfortable. If I'm not with Zach, Keenan, Gabe or Maurice, I'm at home maybe with another friend, but more than likely not."
McCain has stepped in early in his career to become an important contributor. After a greyshirt 2010 season, he played in 10 games with six starts in 2011, only missing the final three regular-season games due to injury. By the end of the season, he had recorded a total of 29 tackles to lead all Cal freshmen. Now in his sophomore season, McCain is facing new opportunities to develop as a player and team leader.
"My role is very different now," McCain said. "Last year, I got my feet wet as a freshman. Coaches gave me a starting position because I understood the game. I could read the field. But this year, as a player, I have to step up."
While the 6-foot-6, 225-pound linebacker is gifted with height and an impressive wingspan of 7-foot-2, he battles against a naturally lean build. McCain, who says putting on weight has been a lifelong trial, described the 2011 Cal-USC game as being a major turning point in his training. During that game, McCain was assigned to square up against then-USC standout offensive lineman Matt Kalil, later selected as the fourth pick overall in the 2012 NFL Draft.
"Last year when I went against Kalil from USC, that was a long game for me," McCain said. "He's a big guy. He's a good player, too. It was really good to go against him as an introduction to the Pac-12. No soft tackles here. He brought it to me. After that USC game, my whole mentality changed. I told myself I have to get stronger. Since then, I've gained probably about 10 pounds. It doesn't look like much, but strength wise, it's helping me out a lot. I can take on bigger guys now."
McCain's progress as an impact player shows. He played in each of the team's first eight games with seven starts, recording 38 tackles, a team co-leading 6.5 tackles for loss (-20 yards) and 2.5 sacks (-11 yards). Additionally, he has added a team-high four quarterback hurries as he has proved to be a menace to opposing signal callers.
As a young leader, McCain continues to grow under role models beyond his North Carolina family. In particular, he identified senior nose guard Kendrick Payne as an important team figure.
"He's always got it together, encouraging us younger guys to speak up," McCain stated. "He really works to make sure we're on the same page, where everything clicks and things get going."
Additionally, a greater change accompanies McCain's second year as a player. Having only being on the team during last year's season at AT&T Park, the Bears' highly anticipated return to Memorial Stadium was a different kind of homecoming for McCain.
"I never had the chance to experience even playing in Memorial Stadium before," McCain said. "Being welcomed into Memorial Stadium, and being able to look all the way around the field and see everything full of blue and gold, it's pretty fun. The fans always show us support. We started out badly, and they were still coming to the games, packing the seats. We have loyal fans. I didn't see that at other places during my recruiting visits. I love it. I love Memorial Stadium."
There is no doubt that Chris McCain will approach his future seasons in Memorial Stadium with the same dedication to growth he has displayed as a young player.