LAWRENCE — Three years later, Justin McCay can still remember the day he met Jake Heaps. It was January 2010, a winter day inside the Alamodome in San Antonio, and nobody would throw McCay the ball.
McCay, then a senior at Bishop Miege High School, had arrived at the U.S. Army All-American Game as one of the country’s top high school receivers. For three years, he had destroyed opponents in the East Kansas League, and after entertaining football scholarship offers from some of the top schools in the country, McCay said yes to Bob Stoops and Oklahoma.
But standing on the turf inside the Alamodome, McCay was just another face on a field of four-star recruits. Finally, a golden-boy quarterback from Seattle dropped back and put one on the money. His name was Jake Heaps, and he was headed off to star for BYU.
“He was the only one that would throw me the ball,” McCay says.
Three years later, after a transfer to Kansas, and a year on the sideline, McCay is still looking for his first college reception. But when he takes the field on Saturday night against South Dakota in the Jayhawks’ season opener, he will do so with Heaps under center. Two transfers. Two former top recruits. Two players who forged a bond while sitting out last season.
“It’s been a long time,” McCay says. “And when I think about it, time went by so fast. It’s almost like I got two years left, and it’s like over almost. It’s just crazy.”
When Heaps and McCay arrived at KU last year, they were introduced in a news conference that also included quarterback Dayne Crist and KU coach Charlie Weis. It was the beginning of a new era: Weis and his band of former high school All-Americans. Heaps was resigned to spending a year on the sideline, but McCay, who had been unable to see the field at Oklahoma, was hopeful that he could inject some life into a comatose passing game.
KU prepared to ask the NCAA for a hardship waiver, and McCay braced for the ruling. His father, Robert Steven McCay, had died during McCay’s junior year at Miege and McCay wished to be closer to his family in Kansas City.
“He had a sliver of hope that he might have been able to play last year,” Heaps says. “So spring ball for him, when he first got here … it wasn’t very good, because he was worried about so many different things.”
By late April, the waiver had finally been denied. And McCay settled in for a year on the sidelines.
“I wanted to help on Saturday,” McCay says. “I wanted to be out there on Saturday. I’m at peace when I play.”
For McCay, though, the peace would come in brief moments of bonding with Heaps. Maybe it would be a spectacular catch on the scout team. Maybe an impromptu dinner to talk about their paths to Kansas. Maybe it was on Fridays, when Scott Holsopple, KU’s strength and conditioning coach, would devise a gut-busting workout for the transfers and redshirts, always telling the guys: “This is your game day.”
“They weren’t fun at all,” Heaps says. “They were the worst. But they got us ready, and they got us mentally tough.”
Now comes the real thing, the chance to connect inside Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. Last season, as Heaps and McCay waited, the Kansas passing game wilted like a flower in a hot car. The Jayhawks ranked 113th in the country in third-down conversion percentage and the same in passing offense, averaging just 148.7 yards per game. KU’s leading receiver, senior Kale Pick, finished with just 26 receptions.
But as Heaps and McCay bided their time, Weis likened his transfer receiver to Keyshawn Johnson, a hint at McCay’s 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame and magnetic personality.
“Justin is never going to run a 4.3 (40-yard dash),” Weis says. “That’s not his deal. So when you’re bigger, what you do is you find different ways to get open. Use your body presence and things like that. That’s the relationship that he had with Jake … he knew where he was going to be at what time.”
On a college campus, time tends to move fast. One day you’re a freshman, the next you’re gone. For McCay, a redshirt junior, it doesn’t feel like three years since he left Miege. It doesn’t feel like three years since he’s caught a pass in a meaningful game. Earlier this month, McCay was recalling that day he spent with Heaps in San Antonio. Somehow, unbelievably, that was his last catch in anything close to a real game.
“I have a lot of prove within myself,” McCay says. “I put goals on myself, bar none. I want to be the best. I want to show people: I’ve had a little ups and downs, but I can play in the Big 12. This is where I’m from, and this is what I do. I play football.”