At two and a half, Stefan McClure had already learned how to ride a bicycle without training wheels.
In the following few years, the future Cal cornerback became something of a daredevil. One time, he rode his bike down a hill with no hands. He crashed, of course, and scraped his face. But as soon as it healed, he got right back on the bike.
He’s taken that mentality to Cal, where he is contributing — and starting — as a true freshman.
McClure’s first major playing time was against Oregon on Oct. 6, and his lackluster performance was a crash course in Division I football. Stopping USC and its superstar receiver the following week was an even greater challenge — because Robert Woods isn’t a set of training wheels. But nothing fazes McClure.
“The kid isn’t afraid of anything,” says Ashley Ambrose, Cal’s defensive backs coach and McClure’s recruiter. “He’ll step up to challenge anybody. That’s the sign of a great person and a great player, somebody that’s not going to back down from anything.
“And that’s always the kind of guy you want in your corner.”
McClure was thrust into a tough corner against the Ducks. The Bears were on the road facing the No. 9 team in front of a rowdy crowd. In the first half, starting cornerback Marc Anthony separated his shoulder, and suddenly McClure was tasked to help shut down one of the country’s most dynamic offenses — at Autzen Stadium, on national TV. At that moment, inexperience outweighed confidence.
At third-and-16, with 4:20 remaining in the second quarter, McClure anticipates an inside cut from Josh Huff, but the Oregon receiver runs the other way. First down Ducks.
At second-and-nine on Oregon’s first drive of the second half, quarterback Darron Thomas makes a long throw to Huff. McClure is right there with him but bumps into him at the end of the play. Huff falls. Pass interference. First down Ducks.
“The commentators weren’t too friendly with my baby,” McClure’s mother Zina Harris-McClure says.
Cal was up 15-14 at the half, but four Duck possessions into the second half, the Bears were looking at a 28-point deficit. McClure’s first full half of playing time was often spent chasing after Oregon receivers.
“It didn’t go the way I had planned or the way I would have anticipated or wanted it to go,” McClure says. “But you just got to have a short-term memory. If you don’t make the play, you just got to learn from the mistakes and get better week to week …
“You can’t let it happen again.”
It’s the following Thursday evening at AT&T Park and the Trojans are beating the Bears once again. One of the storylines going into the game was the play of USC sophomore Robert Woods, who came in averaging the most receiving yards per game in the country.
Ambrose told McClure before the game that he would have the defense cloud Woods sometimes, but there would also be times when the freshman would have to cover the exemplary receiver man-to-man. So there he was, the precocious freshman at the line of scrimmage staring down the country’s top receiver.
“Just lining up at the line, just sitting there face to face with him, it was pretty exciting,” McClure says.
USC won the war against Cal, but McClure won his individual battle. Woods had snagged 14 passes for 255 yards the previous game and caught eight for 131 the game before that. Against Cal, with McClure as his primary defender, the nation’s top receiver disappeared — he managed just five catches for a measly 36 yards.
“He played a heck of a corner,” Woods said after the game. “He’s a physical cover (with) a lot of room to grow.”
That’s what Ambrose saw in the four-star prospect from Vista, Calif., during recruiting. The coach, then at Colorado, saw the talent in McClure. He’s a natural athlete — at two years old, McClure had the coordination and skill to dribble a basketball. Fifteen years later he was starring at cornerback and receiver at Vista High School in north San Diego County when he encountered Ambrose, and the two had an instant connection.
So when Ambrose switched to coach at Cal and was told the Bears needed corners, he went back to the list of players he had his eye on.
“He was the first guy I thought about,” Ambrose says. “Once I went to see him and told him where I was, from that point on I had a feeling.
“It was meant, some kind of way for us to be together. And now he’s getting an opportunity to play.”
And start too. McClure called his showing against Woods a measuring stick, a marker to see where he is now and where he needs to get to in the future. Asked to grade himself on his play the last two games, McClure gave himself a C+. Just average, nothing more. Despite his effort against Woods, McClure still got burned for a touchdown against the Trojans’ other receiver, Marqise Lee.
McClure knows he has room to improve, especially before facing Woods again. Ambrose, however, considered his outing impressive.
“He didn’t grade out perfect, but he had a solid game,” Ambrose says. “And you can see what he’ll be later on in life.
“It shows what kind of player he is, what kind of person he is.”
McClure’s mother remembers taking her son shopping when he was two years old. Exhibiting that same fearless self-confidence, McClure picked out the most expensive shoes. He didn’t know how much they cost; he couldn’t even read the price tag. But he wasn’t going to accept any other shoe.
“When he got something in his head, he stuck with it,” his mother says. “When got it in his head, he was determined.”
That mentality carried over into sports. During one particular football game, McClure didn’t like the play his coach had called and let him know. He suggested a running play, something in the playbook more in tune with the scenario. For him it was a no-brainer.
“Coach, we got to run these plays,” he said. “This is not gonna work.”
So the coach acquiesced to the young star. And if memory serves him right, the play worked.
McClure was eight years old at the time.
Now he is determined to become one of the top defenders in the country by the time he graduates. With the experience he’s getting as a true freshman, it doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.
He’s always been that way. He’s never lacked confidence. He’s never had fear.
“There’s something about him,” his father Alfred says. “Sometimes I can’t explain it.”
Ask Robert Woods.