Kansas wide receiver Justin McCay’s last three football seasons included very little football competition.
Last year, McCay sat out under NCAA transfer rules after starting his career at Oklahoma. In two years at Norman, McCay appeared in a total of three games.
His last steady action came as a high school senior at Bishop Miege in 2009 when he was a highly rated prospect. Now, McCay is beyond ready to become a regular.
“It humbles you,” McCay said. “It makes you hungry when you get on the field.”
McCay starred in Kansas’ spring game on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, finishing with a game-high eight reception for 99 yards and a touchdown from quarterback Jake Heaps.
The teammates were chosen co-offensive MVPs and their team defeated a squad of mostly reserves 34-7.
McCay said he hadn’t see Heaps, KU’s expected starting quarterback, throw better —he completed 20 of 28 passes for 257 yards and four touchdowns.
But it would be difficult for McCay to single out any one day of Heaps’ performances because there have been so many. The two have been playing catch since arriving on campus together for the 2012 spring semester with Heaps transferring from Brigham Young.
Ineligible for competition until this fall, Heaps and McCay worked together last spring through the miserable 2012 season on the scout team and into this spring.
They’ve developed a bond. Kansas coach Charlie Weis calls it chemistry, and it was on display Saturday.
“One of the reasons Jake had a big day is because Justin had a big day,” Weis said, “and one of the reasons Justin had a big day was because he knew where Jake would throw it.”
They’ve connected on what must be thousands of passes over the past 16 months.
“We’ve worked a lot together,” Heaps said. “It’s not just throwing, it’s being around each other, talking to each other, hanging out with each other. We have a comfort level.”
A trust. And one play on Saturday brought it home.
McCay had been telling Heaps he could break free on a go route.
“He’d been begging me to throw it to him, and you got to give it to him when he asks like that,” Heaps said.
McCay ran his route and for a moment it appeared he wouldn’t be able to catch up with the rainbow lofted along the left sideline. But at the last moment, McCay extended his arm and hauled it in for a 47-yard gain for the game’s longest play.
“I was just trying to make the plays come my way,” McCay said.
McCay made them all, including a 5-yard touchdown reception and perhaps most impressively, downfield blocks when the action didn’t come his way.
“You want people to block for you when you have the ball, why not do it for them?” McCay said.
The long road back to competition for McCay is nearly complete. It simply didn’t work out at Oklahoma, and Kansas believed it had a good shot at getting McCay eligible last season, but the NCAA’s ruling went against the Jayhawks.
Heaps brings more experience. He started 16 games at BYU before losing his job. Only two Big 12 quarterbacks — Texas’ David Ash and TCU’s Casey Pachall — have more career major college starts. When he decided to transfer, Heaps went with the coach who had recruited him heavily out of high school in Washington for Notre Dame, and, like McCay, has two years of eligibility.
If Saturday was any indication they can help give Kansas what it sorely lacked last season, a downfield passing game. The Jayhawks didn’t throw a touchdown pass to a wide receiver in 2012. On Saturday, Weis talked about McCay’s “pluck-ability,” catching the ball in traffic and away from a defensive back.
“He goes up and plucks it,” Weis said. “He has pluck-ability. Instead of being a 6-3 guy who plays like a 5-11 guy, when he goes up after the ball he’s got a chance.”
A chance is all McCay wants.