CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Don’t let Bret Bielema fool you into thinking it was fate that led him to the opportunity to recruit and sign running back Josh McCray into his 2021 recruiting class at Illinois.
One of McCray’s high school coaches certainly doesn’t see it that way at all.
In announcing one of his two February signees for the 2021 class, Bielema suggested in his Zoom media conference with media that it just so happens that a longstanding relationship with longtime Wisconsin high school football head coach Jed Kennedy resulted in a quick recruitment of McCray, a three-star tailback prospect from Enterprise, Ala., to Illinois.
“I think in life you’re rewarded so many times when for things you had no idea you were positioning yourself for later,” Bielema said. “I just stayed in touch with him whether I was in coaching, when I was in the NFL, he’s just an intriguing coach to me who has always cared for his players. Little did I know I’d be the head coach at the University of Illinois. Little did I know I would get a job late in December. Little did I know he’d have a running back who was ready to be captivated and cultured...all the stars aligned correctly and I’m just so excited about (McCray’s) talent.”
While Kennedy doesn’t deny the relationship with Bielema started the process, he certainly expressed a bit of a different take on the situation in a phone interview with Illini Now/Sports Illustrated.
“Let me tell you this, I’ve done this long enough that I can say I’ve done this job a long time. So, most college coaches are people I’ll never hear from after the kid they are recruiting signs with them unless, of course, you have another player a few years later they want too,” Kennedy said. “I truly believe Bret Bielema is the complete opposite. It didn’t matter if I ever sent him another player again. When he was in the NFL, he would constantly send me texts saying ‘Hey Jed, how’s the season going? What’s happening with your guys?’ type of stuff. This isn't about a what can you do for me mentality at all. That is the kind of person Bret Bielema is.”
Kennedy has had coaching stints in Florida, Wisconsin and is now the defensive coordinator/assistant head coach at Enterprise (Ala.) High School where his boss is his long-standing friend Rick Darlington, who he first worked with as a private coach running offseason football camps for Kennedy’s program at Central High School in Brookfield, Wis., in 2011.
On the day it was announced Bielema accepted the head coaching job at Illinois, Kennedy wanted to congratulate somebody he considers a friend but knew exactly how to get the new Illini coach’s attention.
“Everybody was recruiting Josh to be on defense and finally, I just said to myself I’m going to text Coach Bielema and see if he’d be interested in him at Illinois,” Kennedy said. “Maybe less than an hour later, I looked down at my phone and it was Bret calling me back personally. He wanted me to hear directly from me that he would give his film a long look.”
Bielema said Wednesday in his Zoom media conference that Kennedy’s text on that week of Dec. 19 was one of 1,400 congratulatory messages on his phone over the next 48 hours, mostly from people he barely knew personally. Kennedy’s text immediately grabbed Bielema’s eye.
“When (Kennedy) reached out to me and said he had a player for me, I knew I needed to call him back,” Bielema said. “We just instantly identified with (McCray). I was kind of a one-man band on this thing and playing snare drum, tambourine and tuba to get him in a position to be here.”
If there’s one high school coach Bielema might trust to know what a quality tailback looks like, it would be Kennedy - the same man who coached former Wisconsin All-American tailback Melvin Gordon at Bradford High School in Kenosha, Wis.
According to Kennedy, the comparisons in work ethic and effort are eerily similar but the body types and running styles of Gordon and McCray are a bit different. Gordon, a former Heisman Trophy finalist in 2014, rushed for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns while guiding the Badgers to a Big Ten Western Division title and an Outback Bowl win over Auburn two years after Bielema left Wisconsin for Arkansas. Coming out of high school, Gordon was a 190-pounder, long stride sprinter who excelled at football and chose Bielema’s home state Wisconsin program over scholarship offers from Iowa, Michigan and Illinois. McCray is a three-star tailback who most Power Five Conference school wanted at defensive back and that’s why he resisted signing during the November period.
“McCray is a build-up speed type who can crash with tilt downhill, is strong to bang inside with good contact balance to drag tacklers, has solid ability to execute a single cut and go and can punch through the second level if he’s allowed to get his lower-half churning,” Sports Illustrated Director of Football Recruiting John Garcia said. “He is a big back who has a bit of an old school feel to his run style. His size and strength make him a candidate to work as a three-down runner, as he can factor in the screen game. McCray also has solid ball skills from his experience as a sophomore as a primary receiver.”
Kennedy knew his high school program’s tailback was, according to him, “a kid just made by God to play tailback in the Big Ten Conference”.
“I’ll tell you this. If Coach Bielema was still at Wisconsin, this kid would’ve been exactly the kind of tailback Wisconsin would’ve made a priority and had committed already way before the February period,” Kennedy said. “He’ll be somebody who walks into that Big Ten locker room and you might think he’s an upperclassmen.”
Kennedy got a phone call the following day from Bielema from a relatively shocked Illini coach after what he’d just seen on film from McCray, a 6-foot-1 and 220-pound tailback, saying he wanted to immediately offer the Alabama Sports Writers Association Class 7A All-State first team selection.
“I pick up the phone and Coach Bielema immediately says to me ‘Good Lord Jed, this kid is a stud. I’m going to offer him right now. I need to have him here’ and I just had to figure Bret would like what he saw on tape,” Kennedy said.
McCray held scholarship offers from six Southeastern Conference programs (Arkansas, Kentucky, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee) and a late offer from Washington State before Illini began its recruitment after Bielema accepted the head coaching job. Illinois offered McCray on Dec. 30 and less than six days later, McCray became the Illini’s first verbal pledge of the Bielema era.
This past summer, McCray was named to the Sports Illustrated All-American watch list after finishing the year with 604 rushing yards and seven touchdowns to go with 103 yards and another touchdown receiving. On defense, under the leadership of Kennedy as a safety in 2019, McCray totaled 39 tackles, six pass breakups, two tackles-for-loss and a team-leading four interceptions with another touchdown. In the 2020 season where he led Enterprise to a 7-4 record and a Class 7A playoff berth, McCray concentrated on offense as a three-down tailback.
“I’ve never begun to fully understand the evaluation process of recruiting because I’ve always operated on the idea that I got enough problems winning high school football games,” Kennedy said. “But I never got the take that he was a defensive player. All of his film was at tailback and he kept telling people he was really much more comfortable on offense.”
So, while Bielema may want to sell the public a humble story of how a long-term coaching friendship just coincidentally resulted in another recruiting win, Kennedy just won’t let his friend sell the self-effacing act for too long.
“You talk to Wisconsin high school when Bret Bielema was the Badgers head coach and ask him what they think of him,” Kennedy said. “Whether we produced highly recruited talent or not, he treated us like we all mattered and it’s not an accident the top prospects stayed in the state.”
When McCray signed his National Letter-of-Intent this morning and sent it in the football office at Illinois, Kennedy says he told McCray’s aunt that she shouldn’t have any concerns over the leadership of the Illini program.
“She called me today and I told her that she doesn’t need to worry about whether the head coach cares about Josh and his family,” Kennedy said. “You want to talk about a college coach who does every single thing they promise to do and I mean every single thing, that’s Bret Bielema. That’s why when Illlinois hired him, they inherited an immediate fan in me here in Alabama and I promise you, it’s not a matter of if Bret Bielema will win there. It’s a matter of when he’ll win there and how much.”