Safety Duo Add Playmaking Ability On Defense
First-Time Starters Kishawn McClain and James Gray Embrace Opportunity
DENTON — One is more of the hard hitter, the other is more of the ball hawk, but each, sophomore Kishawn McClain and junior James Gray, step into pivotal starting roles for the first time in their North Texas careers, quarterbacking the Mean Green defense from their respective safety positions.
“I rather make that big hit,” McClain said. “I like the crowd oohing and ahhing. The pick is nice too, but I rather make the big hit. James and I talk about it all the time. I want to hit somebody, but he wants to go for the ball.”
“They’re meshing together back there,” safeties coach Perry Carter said. “They’re playing together and they’re getting better and better each day. It makes my job more fun and a lot easier with those guys back there. They compete every day, and they love competing.”
McClain, a Conference USA All-Freshman team selection last season, saw action in all 12 games, starting three, and finished his freshman season with 39 tackles. The Rosenberg, Texas, native made an impact quickly for the Mean Green, intercepting a pass and recording nine tackles in his first career start against Southern Miss.
“Coming in as a freshman, he was a great athlete and a great football player,” Carter said. “He’s very tough, he’s physical and he loves contact. I like that about him. Even in practice last year, his nose was around the football. He made plays, so I knew he could play for us this year.”
He learned behind Sheldon Wade, who started nine games at free safety and finished as the team’s fourth-leading tackler with 55, and played both safety spots, before taking on the mantle of a starting position and the responsibilities of leadership that comes with it.
“I have been working on trying to bring my teammates with me and lead,” McClain said. “I want everybody else to know the scheme and know exactly what we’re doing because if every person does their job, it will work out for all 11 players on the field.”
Gray arrived at North Texas by way of Fort Scott CC, where he earned honorable mention JUCO All-American honors and first-team all-conference honors, looking to replace Lairamie Lee at strong safety, who started 33 career games, including 11 games last season.
“I want to continue to be coachable,” said Gray on the first day of fall camp. “That’s the No. 1 thing I want to get out of fall camp. I want to communicate with my teammates and make sure we all come together and play faster as a defense and make sure everyone is doing their job. And once I gain the trust of my teammates, I want to be a leader.”
His early enrollment for spring practice has helped with the learning curve that comes with playing football at the Division I level, as well as learning the system and making calls. Working on his eyes, technique and keys, he has become a better student of the game and learned the Mean Green defense.
“I want him to be comfortable, so he can pin his ears back and take all the thinking out of it,” Carter said. “Now, he has a grasp of our system, so he’s just playing. He’s making plays and getting his hands on a lot of balls in practice, which is always a good sign.”
Together, they look to provide playmaking ability and help North Texas achieve a positive turnover margin after breaking even with 22 forced turnovers this past season, to help provide a winning edge on that side of the ball in 2015.
“Any time we see the ball, we try to go get it, even if it’s a run play,” Gray said. “We try to knock the ball out and force it out. We do the same things in drill. We work on that every day.”
“A lot of times, guys talk about getting more turnovers, but they never work on getting and creating turnovers, so that’s something we work on every day,” Carter said. “We work on catching the football, ripping the football, and scooping and scoring, so they work on attacking the ball and creating turnovers.”