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Rookie James McCray, from Catawba College in North Carolina, will battle for a backup spot on the 49ers’ roster.

Underdog: Small-school safety eyeing special teams role

Published: Wednesday, Jun. 25, 2014 - 7:02 am
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 27, 2014 - 7:53 am


* Shoe-ins: Antoine Bethea, Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward*

* Looking good: C.J. Spillman, Craig Dahl

* Fighting for a spot: D.J. Campbell, L.J. McCray*

First the bad news for aspiring, young safeties on the 49ers: The team lost one safety during the offseason (Donte Whitner) while gaining two (Antoine Bethea and Jimmie Ward). That's difficult math to overcome on perhaps the most talent-laden roster in the league.

The good news is that a young safety, James (L.J.) McCray, caught the eye of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio during the 49ers' team sessions. McCray stood out during the Tuesday minicamp practice when, while working with the second-team defense, he knocked away three passes and nearly came up with a dazzling, diving interception.

"He’s done well for a small school guy," Fangio said of the Catawba College product. "He’s got good ability. He’s got good speed and he’s tough. 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.”

Like the rest of the league, the 49ers recently have turned to smaller safeties to keep up with increasingly pass-oriented offenses. Bethea is under six feet while Ward is 5-10, 193 pounds and played cornerback at times in college. McCray is more the traditional size -- 6 feet and 210 pounds -- and he has excellent speed for someone of that stature. He was clocked at 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his pro day and had a vertical jump of 41 inches.

The big colleges passed on McCray (although the University of Miami did make a late offer) due to academic issues in high school, and he wasn't drafted. However, at least eight teams were interested in signing him as an undrafted free agent.

Like any small-school, undrafted rookie, McCray's best route to a roster spot is through special teams, and he was on just about every special teams unit for the 49ers this spring. He excelled there in college not as coverage specialist but rather as a return man. He set the school record in total kick-return yards (2,212) and in 2010 had 94- and 99-yard touchdown returns against Tusculum.

Is there a spot for McCray on the 53-man roster? The team already has a fast, hard-hitting special teams ace at the position in Spillman. The caveat is that Spillman will be a free agent in March while other long-time special teams players like Kassim Osgood, Ray Ventrone and Blake Costanzo are in their 30s. Ventrone also is listed as a safety and played there during the spring. It was clear last summer, however, that the 49ers view him as special teams specialist only.

McCray would need to make eye-catching plays in the preseason -- or for there to be a rash of injuries at safety -- in order to make the 53-man roster. But if he makes progress learning the defense this summer, a spot on the practice squad does not seem farfetched.

* rookie

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Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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