J’Vian McCray didn’t make much a first impression on Brett Hickman when the latter was named head football coach at West Brunswick High School in Shalotte, NC, in March 2018.
Hickman, whose father Yogi led the Trojans to 53 wins between 1994-99, had spent most of his young coaching career at the college level. He served as a grad assistant at East Carolina under Skip Holtz, worked as linebackers coach at NCAA Division II North Greenville and run game coordinator at Gardner-Webb before being hired to lead his prep alma mater.
So, Hickman knew what a college football prospect looked like.
“I took the job in March of J’Vian’s sophomore year, so I didn’t coach him his first two years,” Hickman said. “The film of his freshman and sophomore years didn’t say much about him being a Division I prospect.
“But then we saw him play basketball in the gym. To see him move around at 280 or 290 pounds, we were kind of like, ‘Wow! We’ve got something here.’ So a bunch of guys on our staff became invested in him and we told him, ‘If you do what we ask, you’ll have some (college) opportunities.’ He really went from being a 290-pound good athlete to a 290-pound Division I football player.”
East Carolina became one of McCray’s first college suitors when he attended the North Carolina game last fall. Soon-to-be-new ECU head coach Mike Houston and his staff also began recruiting McCray at James Madison. When Houston and much of his JMU staff moved to Greenville last December, they made one of their first stops at West Brunswick.
A scholarship offer followed in April and the 6-foot-1, 285-pound defensive lineman gave a verbal commitment to the Pirates on June 5. McCray also entertained offers from Air Force, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Liberty, The Citadel and Tulane before making his pledge to ECU, and that number has grown considerably since, according to Hickman.
“He’s had some big schools, power conference schools, contacting him,” Hickman said. “Quite honestly, I don’t think East Carolina would be upset if he had gone to a camp or made some visits. But we’ve talked about it and he’s clear, ‘No, this (ECU) is where I’m going to school and where I feel good about.’
“He’s had six or seven other people call to offer since his commitment, but he doesn’t even post those on Twitter, which shows me how committed he is to East Carolina.”
McCray followed in the footsteps of his father, Marcus, who was a star defender for Yogi Hickman at West Brunswick. The younger McCray developed into an All-Mideastern 4-A/3-A Conference performer in both basketball and football as a junior.
On the football field, McCray recorded an amazing 46 tackles for loss from a defensive tackle position to earn not only first-team All-Mideastern honors but also made the Wilmington Star News’ All-Area team.
“He was dominant from the first game onward,” Hickman said. “In the first series of the first game against Socastee (SC) he made two big plays. On the second play of the game, he shed a double team. He throws the first guy off, throws the second guy off and tackles the back at the line of scrimmage.
“Two plays later, after we had a busted play and had given up a first down, we sent him on a little inside slant move. He flies past the tackle, then goes by the guard to make a tackle for loss to stop them there.
“He showed right there on one series his strength and power on one play, and his ability to shed a double team, and the next play he showed his quickness to get in the backfield.”
McCray picked up all-league basketball honors as a junior after averaging 10.2 points and 5.3 rebounds a game for a 14-13 squad.
The Pirates have recruited McCray as an interior defensive lineman. During Hickman’s three years at ECU under Holtz, two as a graduate assistant and one as quality control coach on defense, he watched Pirate greats Linval Joseph, C.J. Wilson and Jay Ross develop into NFL players. Hickman believes McCray, who also plays tight end for the Trojans, has similar potential.
“He’s a rare specimen,” Hickman said. “He reminds me of when I was there (ECU) with Jay Ross, C.J. Wilson and Linval (Joseph). He’s got some of those same qualities. He’s not quite as tall as those guys, and he’s not the pass rusher that C.J. is, but he very easily could have a career like Jay had. They have a very similar makeup and both guys come from the same area.”
Ross, who played at New Hanover High in nearby Wilmington, starred for the Pirates between 2006-2009 and spent three seasons playing in the NFL.
McCray became the fourth player to make a pledge to ECU’s recruiting Class of 2020, but started a run of five verbals landed by the Pirates between June 5 and June 17. Those additions increased the class to eight players and moved ECU to fourth among American Athletic Conference schools, according to rankings compiled by 247Sports.com. McCray is the first defensive lineman to commit.